Groups Ask UN to Press U.S. on Menthol, Citing Race

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Almost 100 advocacy groups are asking the United Nations to look at the adverse effects of menthol cigarettes on African Americans’ health as a human-rights issue, a move that ramps up pressure on the U.S. government to ban the minty flavored tobacco products.

The request, seen by Bloomberg News, is addressed to a UN committee that seeks to end racial discrimination. The groups want the committee to call on the U.S. to ban menthol cigarettes.

The effort’s leaders include the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Action on Smoking and Health. Around 92 other organizations have signed on, including the American Heart Association, the National Council of Churches and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

“The decades of well-documented racialized and predatory tobacco industry targeting of African Americans, specifically with menthol flavoring, is a human rights issue,” the groups say in the letter, which they plan to send Wednesday.

Tobacco investors are already on the lookout for tighter U.S. regulations: Stocks tumbled on April 19 in response to a report that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol as well as potential caps to nicotine levels in cigarettes. Menthols are seen as particularly dangerous because the minty flavor may make the habit easier to adopt and more appealing to some.

Controversy over the agency’s failure to enact restrictions on tobacco -- despite talking about them for many years -- has increased amid heightened concerns around smoking during the Covid-19 respiratory pandemic, particularly for African Americans. There has been controversy for decades over the way menthols have been marketed to African Americans.

The FDA is expected to come out with a stance on menthol cigarettes by April 29 under a lawsuit filed by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, or AATCLC. The group sued the FDA for failing to regulate menthol despite congressional urging to do so in 2009.

According to the FDA’s own projections in 2011, without its action on menthol by 2020, the African-American population was expected to suffer 4,700 excess deaths related to menthol cigarettes, according to the letter from AATCLC and Action on Smoking and Health.

“Menthol is a health and equality issue, and while we’re talking about equality around Covid, now is the time to be talking about menthol,” Kelsey Romeo-Stuppy, managing attorney with Action on Smoking and Health, or ASH, said in a phone interview.

ASH also plans to send a separate letter Wednesday to the U.S. State Department, saying that the government has an obligation to report to the UN on its progress with ending racial discrimination. The agency was supposed to submit a letter in 2017 but never did, ASH said in the letter, which was also reviewed by Bloomberg News. The delay is particularly troubling at a time when health inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19, the group said.

While UN pressure to ban menthols could be a long shot, the international agency has weighed in on similar requests before. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended that Argentina take action to change how cigarettes were marketed to women in the country.

The European Union, along with countries such as Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia and Moldova, have banned menthol flavored cigarettes.

Michael R. Bloomberg has campaigned and given money in support of a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco. He is the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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