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Columbus begins discussion on ending sales of menthol cigarettes and flavored vapes

A hand holds a vape pen
Lindsay Fox

Health advocates want Columbus City Council to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored vapes in city stores.

Members of the public were invited to attend the first community conversation about the issue at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Reeb Center, 280 Reeb Ave., with Councilwoman Shayla Favor and public health officials.

Council has not introduced any legislation, but the proposal is being drafted, said Amanda Turner, executive director of Tobacco 21.

Turner said the issue arose during a conversation with Columbus Public Health about 18 months ago.

Public health expert Dr. Phillip Gardiner said 85 U.S. cities have banned the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored vapes, while 300 cities have just banned flavored vapes. Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said the entire country of Canada banned the sale of menthol cigarettes.

Gardiner and Turner said banning the sale of the products in the city would start the process of reversing the effects of decades-long marketing campaigns that specifically targeted Black people, other people of color, women, LGBTQ populations and other groups.

Gardiner said the industry used “disproportionate marketing and predatory preying” on a vulnerable” segment of society to rake in profits.

Tobacco marketers found black celebrities and athletes to push menthol cigarettes and even lowered the cost of them in neighborhoods with African American populations, he said. Now, 85% of Black smokers smoke menthol, compared to 30% of white smokers.

"In the early 1950s, only 5% of African Americans smoked menthol cigarettes. By 1968, that almost tripled to 14%. By 1976, that it tripled again to 42%," Gardiner said.

He said despite critics’ suggestions that such a ban would only create an illicit market or push shoppers to other jurisdictions, the data shows it hasn’t happened in those areas.

Turner said data shows it can help people quit when easier-to-stomach tobacco is removed from the equation.

“A lot of people will switch products but there are studies that show if you're using menthol cigarettes and you want to quit and you switch to regular cigarettes, you have a higher chance of quitting because menthol is a flavor. It's a cooling agent, it suppresses coughing,” Turner said.

Gardiner said it’s “outrageous” because the added menthol makes it easier to become addicted to nicotine and harder to quit it.

“Menthol by definition is an anesthetic that actually masks the harsh taste of tobacco smoke. It has a numbing and cooling effect and allows for deeper inhalation. The deeper you inhale, the more toxins and nicotine you take in,” Gardiner said. “The more nicotine and toxins you take in, the more addicted you become, the more addicted you become. It's harder to quit. That's why they put it in there. It's outrageous in the first place.”

Gardiner said the FDA is studying the idea of banning menthol from cigarettes, but the process will take too long.

“The FDA is considering getting rid of menthol, but since the FDA, unfortunately, drags their feet on this, it's important that communities like Columbus take moves on them themselves. The FDA will take years to do this,” he said.

Turner and Gardiner said the ban wouldn’t outlaw the products in the city, just their sale, so people wouldn’t get in trouble for buying them somewhere else and bringing them in.

“These laws are about getting the retailers to stop selling them this is not about personal use personal possession or personal pursuit percentage, this is about the store owner, not selling them,” Gardiner said.

Critics say a ban isn’t fair to the smokers who prefer menthol or are using flavored vapes to avoid cigarettes. Some say it discriminates against Black smokers.

To that, Gardiner said, “It isn't the public health doctors that are the racist. It's the tobacco industry.”

“It's really the tobacco industry that has been discriminatory, it's them that have been racist. It's not the tobacco-control movement, that is trying to save lives,” Gardiner said.

When asked why health officials are moving to block flavored tobacco but not flavored alcohol, Gardiner said it’s because an occasional drink, excluding alcohol abuse, won’t kill people.

But, “If you use cigarettes, as they're intended, 50% of the people will die from them.”

“Cigarettes are much more deadly. In fact, the leading causes of death worldwide in the United States, in Ohio and, unfortunately, in Columbus, are tobacco-related diseases. And that's what this is all about. Is trying to save lives,” Gardiner said.

Art Way, a drug policy consultant working with the tobacco industry, said a focus on cessation help is a more effective route to reduce nicotine addiction.

He said targeted bans like this are similar to “patronizing, drug-war-type policies that really don't have a benefit to our community.”

And, he said vaping can help people avoid cigarettes.

“You know, we don't want to push people back into cigarettes who are using vapes to be healthier,” Way said.
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Renee Fox