News Release 

Would menthol cigarettes be banned if the typical consumer was young, white and upper-middle class?

A new paper highlights menthol cigarettes as a social justice issue

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Research News

October 1, 2020 -- Menthol could be exacerbating deep social inequities according to a paper just published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research. Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and colleagues at CUNY and Rutgers School of Public Health suggest that a ban on menthol cigarettes could have monumental implications for both the short- and long-term physical and mental health of communities of color.

"Assessing menthol smoking status should be a priority in all substance use research and smoking cessation interventions," observed Renee Goodwin, PhD, an epidemiologist at Columbia Mailman School, and senior author. "A decade after Congress exempted menthol from the flavored cigarette ban, preference for menthol remains more popular among young smokers and extremely high among Black smokers."

Overall estimates indicate that over 630,000 deaths would be averted and that one of three of these would be a Black life if menthol was included in the flavored cigarette ban.

Using data from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the analysis showed that 10 years after the exemption of menthol from the ban, its preference among cigarette smokers remains inversely correlated with age and race. Among black smokers, 85 percent had a preference for menthol cigarettes while only 29 percent of Non-Hispanic Whites expressed the same penchant.

According to Goodwin, in the context of inaction on menthol, young people and Black smokers are not the only vulnerable populations that warrant attention with respect to menthol smoking. Preference for menthol among cigarette smokers was also disproportionately high among lesbian and gay smokers (51 percent), bisexual smokers (46 percent), and smokers with mental health problems (45 percent). The analyses also highlighted disproportionately high percentages among socioeconomically disadvantaged populations and pregnant women.

"The menthol loophole and subsequent inaction on menthol comes down to policy makers, political influence, and power," noted Cristine Delnevo of Rutgers and the first author. "For decades, tobacco companies have been targeting marginalized populations with advertising for menthol cigarettes. It's clear that a ban on menthol is not only necessary for the protection of public health, but also to achieve health equity in the U.S."

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The work was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (R21 HL149773-01) and the Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science, National Cancer Institute, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U54CA229973).

A co-author is Ollie Ganz, Rutgers School of Public Health.

About Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Columbia Mailman School is the seventh largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its nearly 300 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change and health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with more than 1,300 graduate students from 55 nations pursuing a variety of master's and doctoral degree programs. The Columbia Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers, including ICAP and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit http://www.mailman.columbia.edu.

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