OAKLAND, Calif. - The Biden administration's expected announcement to ban menthol cigarettes Thursday is welcome news to a Bay Area professor who co-founded a group pushing for the change.
"To get the FDA to ban menthol would be an important step in the right direction," said UCSF Professor Valerie Yerger, an expert in health policy and co-founder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.
The AATCLC is among a coalition of groups that filed a petition and then a lawsuit last June saying the FDA repeatedly failed to regulate menthol, harming communities of color.
"When you look at African American smokers, 85% of them are smoking menthol cigarettes," said Yerger. saying the FDA should be doing more, "Their lack of action has particularly harmed African Americans."
Governor Gavin Newsom also called for the FDA to ban menthol, noting California had already passed SB793 which banned menthol and other flavored tobacco products.
The law would have taken effect in January, but is on hold until November 2022 after opponents and the tobacco industry gathered enough signatures for a ballot referendum.
"Even by staying this legislation until after the election, they're making billions of dollars on that because of the delay," said Jerry Hill, former State Senator and author of SB 793.
Hill says while he supports a federal ban on menthol, the California law goes a step further.
"Ours also will apply to e-cigarettes where my understanding the proposal with the FDA does not apply to ecigarettes," said Hill.
The ACLU and a coalition of groups opposing an FDA menthol ban said they worry it would criminalize people in communities of color.
"There are serious concerns that the ban implemented by the Biden administration will eventually foster an underground market that is sure to trigger criminal penalties which will disproportionately impact people of color and prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction," said Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a written statement.
Yerger disagrees and says menthol bans are needed and focus on the tobacco industry and retailers not users.
"These policies to ban menthol whether on the local level, at the state level, or even at the federal level, will not penalize individuals for using the product or possessing the product."
If the FDA does issue a ban on menthol cigarettes, there would need to be a period of public comment before it is finalized.
Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.