San Francisco considers banning menthol cigarettes, known for their appeal to minority smokers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 9:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 9:07am

A San Francisco official has proposed an anti-tobacco law that would ban the retail sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavoured tobacco or tobacco-related products that are often the first choice of minority group members and teenagers who smoke.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, sponsor of the proposed ordinance, joined last week with public health experts and community advocates to announce the measure, which she said goes beyond laws on flavoured tobacco in cities such as Chicago, Berkeley and New York.

“The legislation I’ve authored is a full restriction on the sale of all flavoured tobacco products, and that does include menthol. There are no exemptions,” Cohen said. That includes cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, and also electronic cigarettes.

The proposed ordinance is designed to address two major groups, youth and minorities, who have been targeted in successful, well-financed advertising campaigns that promote menthol cigarettes and flavored non-cigarette tobacco products. The products often attract blacks, Asians and Latinos, and teenagers.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee endorsed the proposal. “We know from research and studies that tobacco-related diseases continue to be the No 1 cause of preventable deaths, especially among low-income and minority communities,” he said.

Oakland, California, is considering a similar law.

Cohen, who represents the predominantly African-American Bayview-Hunters Point district of San Francisco, said the ordinance grew out of her experience with family members who smoked menthol cigarettes and died of cancer. “This is an evidence-based tobacco prevention strategy that will save lives and cut costs for taxpayers who are collectively shouldering the health care costs of tobacco-related illnesses,” she said.

African-Americans don’t have a genetic disposition that makes them smoke menthol cigarettes. It’s the result of a very conscious advertising campaign
Dr Valerie Yerger

Nearly 9 in 10 African-Americans who smoke prefer menthol cigarettes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Menthol is believed to make the harmful chemicals in cigarettes more easily absorbed by the body, and some research shows that menthol cigarettes are more addictive than regular ones, according to the CDC.

“African-Americans don’t have a genetic disposition that makes them smoke menthol cigarettes,” said Dr Valerie Yerger, an associate professor of health policy at the University of California-San Francisco. “It’s the result of a very conscious advertising campaign by the tobacco industry.” Menthol cigarettes are also preferred by a majority of Latinos and Asian-Americans who smoke, said Randy Uang, director of tobacco prevention and control services at Breathe California.

Public health experts say restricting menthol and other flavoured tobacco would improve the health not only for minority populations, but also for teenagers. “Because flavours play such a key role in youth starting to smoke, restricting access to these products means that fewer youth will start smoking,” Uang said.

Flavours are popular with inexperienced smokers, he said, because they mask the taste of tobacco and decrease the irritating effects of nicotine.

The San Francisco ordinance, if approved, would fill a gap in federal legislation that authorised the US Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco. In 2009, the FDA banned “characterising flavours,” such as candy, fruit and chocolate, in cigarettes. But, lobbied by the tobacco industry, it stopped short of prohibiting menthol in cigarettes or flavourings in other tobacco products like little cigars and smokeless tobacco.

Tobacco-control advocates like Yerger have been pushing the FDA to ban menthol and other flavourings for years. “This ordinance didn’t happen overnight,” she said. “It’s been a very long process and part of that has been gathering evidence about the role of menthol in hooking kids at a very early age and the tobacco industry knowing that it has the ability to do that by manipulating the levels of menthol in their products.”

Cohen noted that the tobacco lobby is strong in Sacramento and she’s expecting pushback from the industry. “I would imagine they will be fighting this legislation every step of the way,” she said.

If enacted, the tobacco ordinance would be effective January 1. Enforcement would be the job of the Department of Public Health, which also would be responsible for educating retailers about the new restrictions.