April 27 (UPI) -- Federal regulators are facing a deadline this week to decide whether they plan to impose a national ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes in the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration must respond by Thursday to a court order about whether it will order the mint-flavored cigarettes removed from the market.
The proposed ban was prompted by a citizen petition that allows the public to request policy changes at the FDA. A court ruled in favor of a resulting lawsuit that accused the FDA of unreasonably delaying its final response to the petition, which was filed in 2013.
But even if the federal health agency bans menthol cigarettes in the United States, as some expect it will do this week, the mint-flavored smokes won't be taken off the shelves anytime soon. The FDA's move would only open a process that could take years.
FDA research and public health experts say the minty flavor of menthol cigarettes makes smoking less irritating, appeals to younger people and makes smoking harder to quit. They also cause more harm to Black Americans, research suggests.
The lawsuit seeking the ban was filed by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Action on Smoking and Health.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 85% of Black American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes compared to 29% of White smokers.
The tobacco industry has specifically marketed menthol cigarettes to Black Americans in the past, including sponsoring musical events like a jazz festival and racing teams named for the Kool brand, AATCLC co-Chair Phillip Gardiner told The Washington Post.
The FDA has previously attempted to ban menthol cigarettes in the United States. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb led the most recent failed effort in 2018.
The tobacco industry has spent millions over the years lobbying Congress to oppose a possible ban. The industry has said menthol cigarettes are no more harmful than regular cigarettes and proposed bans have drawn bipartisan opposition from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights groups.
"The science does not support regulating menthol cigarettes differently than non-menthol cigarettes," Kaelan Hollon, a spokeswoman for tobacco maker R.J. Reynolds, told the Post. "And the many issues implicated by a menthol cigarette ban -- science, illicit trade and unintended consequences -- are important and merit careful thought."
A study by researcher Geoffrey Fong of the University of Waterloo found that a 2018 ban on menthol cigarettes in Canada led to a 59% increase in the likelihood of menthol smokers quitting. A similar ban in the United States, the study found, could lead an additional 923,000 smokers to quit.
It's not clear whether electronic cigarettes or other tobacco products that contain menthol would be affected by an FDA ban.