They have been marketed as “cool”, “smooth” and “refreshing”, but were also linked to making smoking more palatable and having a negative impact of communities of color. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced that it was planning to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes in an attempt to wean more Americans off tobacco.
Menthol cigarettes still enjoy a large following in the United States, with almost two out of every five cigarettes that were sold in the country in 2020 being menthols. While the overall number of cigarettes sold in the U.S. has declined significantly since 1980, the Federal Trade Commission Cigarette Report shows that the share of menthol cigarettes in those sales has increased once more over the last decade to 37%.
This chart shows the share of menthol and non-menthol cigarettes sold in the United States (in … [+] percent).
Menthol cigarettes have been found to be popular among young people, the LGBT community and—most of all—African Americans. According to the FDA, 85% of Black smokers in the U.S. smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to just around 30% of white smokers. While African Americans overall do not have significantly higher rates of smoking than whites, Black men do and as a result experience the highest rates of lung cancer in the country.
Some studies have suggested that the perceived soothing effect of menthol cigarettes allows smokers to inhale more toxins, while African Americans have also been found to take in more harmful chemicals per cigarette than whites independent of metabolism factors.
Other arguments against menthol cigarettes are that they are easier to get started on and harder to quit—both points that the tobacco industry refutes. Kingsley Wheaton, chief marketing officer of British American Tobacco, which owns popular menthol cigarettes brand Reynolds, was quoted by The New York Times as saying that menthol cigarettes were only as harmful as regular cigarettes and therefore shouldn’t be outlawed.
Use of non-menthol cigarettes declined faster
While the sales volume of non-menthol cigarettes in the U.S. was cut down by 72% since 1980, menthol cigarette sales only decreased by 57%. Yet, a recent study out of Vanderbilt University also refutes the CDC’s claim that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting than non-menthol smokers. Yet, the study does not address what would happened if a menthol smoker would have to switch to regular tobacco.
This case study was recently carried out in many European countries, however, as the U.S. is kind of a latecomer to banning menthol cigarettes. A sales ban went into effect in the EU and the U.K. in 2020, but a survey among menthol cigarette smokers showed that six months after the ban, only 8% had quit smoking. The coronavirus pandemic might have been a factor here as it increased tobacco consumption, with 2020 also seeing a rare uptick in cigarette sales in the United States. Preference for menthol is much lower in the EU at around 5% of cigarettes being of the type.
Canada had previously banned menthol cigarettes, stopping sales between 2015 and 2017, and had some more encouraging but still not overwhelmingly positive results concerning the quit rates of menthol smokers. Brazil was the first country in the world attempting to ban menthol cigarettes in 2012, but never fully implemented the law due to significant pushback from the tobacco industry.

Charted by Statista