Assembly panel will weigh ban on menthol cigarettes ahead of planned F.D.A. ban

By: - June 2, 2022 7:11 am

New Jersey banned flavored cigarettes in 2008, but left an exemption for clove and menthol cigarettes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An Assembly panel on Thursday will weigh whether to ban menthol cigarettes, alongside other new restrictions on tobacco sales and nicotine products.

The bill (A1989), sponsored by Burlington County Democrats Assemblywoman Carol Murphy and Assemblyman Herb Conaway, would amend a 2008 law that banned flavored cigarettes but exempted those with clove or menthol flavors.

“Menthol’s not there by accident. It’s there because it is a cooling agent, and because it cools, it allows people who otherwise would not be able to take up smoking because most people have difficulty taking in hot fumes into their lungs,” said Conaway, a physician who chairs the Assembly Health Committee.

The federal government in 2009 banned most types of flavored tobacco, but the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act allowed retailers to continue selling menthol cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates tobacco in the United States, has repeatedly attempted to ban menthol flavoring since 2009, but its efforts have been blocked by lobbying from tobacco groups and, on occasion, from some Black leaders.

The FDA last month released proposed rules for a ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, but those rules are likely to be tied up in the courts, potentially for years, Conaway said.

Black and young Americans smoked menthol cigarettes at disproportional rates in 2019, according to the FDA, which estimates a ban on the flavor would prevent between 324,000 and 654,000 smoking deaths over the next four decades.

“To those who come forward and say that this will disproportionately affect Black Americans or Black New Jerseyans, I would remind them that a big reason why they’re smoking in the first place is because of the policy by big corporations selling tobacco products to target these lethal products in Black communities,” Conaway said.

Tobacco companies have historically marketed menthol cigarettes in Black neighborhoods and in publications serving predominantly Black audiences.

The push was effective. In 2018, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 85% of Black smokers preferred menthol cigarettes, compared to 29% of white smokers and 50% of Hispanic smokers. The FDA said its proposed new rules would reduce smoking-related deaths among Black Americans by as many as 238,000.

The NAACP and its New Jersey branch have backed a menthol ban.

New Jersey banned flavored electronic cigarette liquid in early 2020 amid a furor over a mysterious vaping illness later linked to additives in black-market cannabis distillates.

No more pharmacy fixes

A separate bill up for discussion in the Assembly Health Committee Thursday would bar the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies.

“By removing those products from view, we’re taking a stand as a state that we believe pharmacies should be a place where health care is provided, not a place where too many Americans go to find addiction on the one hand and chronic disease or early death on the other as a result of access to and use of cigarettes,” Conaway said.

Some pharmacies have already stopped selling tobacco products. CVS Health Corp, the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, stopped tobacco sales in 2014, and the CEO of Walgreens, its top competitor, last year said it was considering doing the same.

Rite Aid is expected to pull tobacco products from its shelves sometime this year.

Still, Conaway said he expects the bill to face industry opposition, noting a break from tobacco sales has been linked to a drop in pharmacy profits. The New Jersey Pharmacists Association did not return a call seeking comment. The bill banning pharmacy tobacco sales does not appear on an online list of its legislative priorities.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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