Ayanna Pressley wants answers about what happened to the FDA’s plans to ban menthol cigarettes

"We don’t have more time. People are dying."

–Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Over a year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it would seek to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes — an initiative to combat youth smoking.

But much like a proposed ban on most flavored e-cigarettes touted only months ago by President Donald Trump, that plan has apparently stalled.

Ayanna Pressley wants to know: why?

That point drove part of the Boston congresswoman’s remarks and questioning Wednesday during a House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy hearing focusing on how the FDA is handling an “epidemic of e-cigarette use,” particularly as adolescent and teenage use climbs.

Pressley noted the tobacco industry has disproportionally marketed menthol cigarettes in particular to black communities, and referenced new legislation recently passed by Massachusetts state lawmakers that places strict, sweeping restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Advertisement

“If we are banning flavors, we must ban all flavors, which includes mint and menthol,” the Democrat told Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “To not do so, would be discriminatory since menthol in particular has imposed a unique and deadly burden on the black community.”

Last week, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a controversial “tobacco control” law limiting the sale of flavored nicotine vaping products and tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, to licensed smoking bars where the products must be consumed on site. The new policy comes following a months-long, statewide ban on all vaping product sales, which Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration rolled out in September amid a national outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries.

Pressley pressed Zeller twice about the current status of the proposed FDA ban on menthol cigarettes, asking if the agency plans to follow through on the policy.

“I cannot give you a yes or no answer in an open public hearing,” Zeller said. “All I can tell you is we’re continuing to review the evidence related to flavors in all tobacco products as we try to follow the regulatory science and come up with the right policy.”

Zeller was also tight-lipped about plans to prohibit e-cigarette flavors the Trump administration announced in September.

Advertisement

The guidance was sent to the White House regulatory office in October, with a review completed last month. The administration has not said what its next steps are or if it is still pursuing the matter.

On Wednesday, Pressley also asked whether the FDA recognizes e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid.

It does not.

“So … menthol e-cigarettes are not an off-ramp for adult menthol smokers,” Pressley said. “They are an on-ramp to hooking a new generation of smokers …?”

Zeller told her the FDA must perform a “balancing act” for any policy that could fall on flavored tobacco products.

“It’s an easy call on the negative side of the ledger when it comes to the role that flavors are playing in attracting kids to experiment, especially kids who are walking around thinking that these are harmless products,” he said. “But it’s a balancing act because we have heard repeatedly from former smokers that it was the presence of certain flavors that helped them successfully transition completely away from cigarettes.”

Every year, 47,000 African Americans die from smoking-related causes.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93 percent of African Americans began smoking by using menthol cigarettes.

“Our work to end the smoking epidemic is not simply a matter of public health – this is and always has been an issue of racial justice,” Pressley said in her remarks.

She called the issue “a life and death matter.”

“We don’t have more time,” Presley said. “People are dying.”