In a move bound to further shake the tobacco industry, the Food and Drug Administration plans to propose a ban on menthol cigarettes next week as part of its aggressive campaign against flavored e-cigarettes and some tobacco products, agency officials said.
The proposal would have to go through the FDA regulatory maze, and it could be several years before such a restriction took effect, especially if the major tobacco companies contest the agency's authority to do so. None of the major tobacco companies would comment on the possibility of barring menthol cigarettes at this early stage.
But such a move has been long-awaited by public health advocates, who have been especially concerned about the high percentage of black people who become addicted to menthol cigarettes.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the agency's commissioner, would not comment publicly on the proposal. But in a recent interview, he said the FDA was revisiting the issue, one that had been weighed in previous administrations. "It was a mistake for the agency to back away on menthol," he said.
Canada has already imposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, and the European Union's ban is set to go into effect in 2020. Earlier this year, San Francisco passed a prohibition against the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes.
The menthol proposal is just one of several initiatives the FDA plans to announce sometime next week, including a ban on sales of most flavored e-cigarettes, except menthol and mint, at retail stores and gas stations across the country. The products, which include such flavors as chicken-and-waffles and mango, would be mainly relegated to sales online, at sites where the agency hopes to impose strict age verification to ensure that minors could not buy them.
As e-cigarettes became a booming business and extremely popular among teenagers and young people, health officials, parents and others became alarmed at the soaring use of nicotine-addicting products that were considered alternatives to traditional smoking for adults.
The FDA began targeting the major manufacturers of e-cigarettes, focusing in particular on Juul Labs, the maker of a flashy product that has become nearly ubiquitous in schools and on the streets.
Just a day after agency officials began issuing details of next week's plan to ban some sales, Juul Labs indicated on Friday that it had decided to pull several of its wildly popular flavored e-cigarette pods off store shelves, according to several people briefed by the company.
The vaping giant will continue to sell its liquid nicotine pods in mint, menthol and tobacco flavors in brick-and-mortar stores, but it will restrict other flavors that could be appealing to younger people to online sales.
Juul Labs launched the pod device, which resembles a flash drive, in 2015, and now has about 77 percent of the United States e-cigarette market.
Lisa David, president of chief executive of Public Health Solutions, a New York-based nonprofit group specializing in health issues for low-income and immigrant families, said she opposed keeping mint and menthol flavors easily available in stores, especially given the gateway effect for young people who start vaping and then move to traditional cigarettes.
"Menthol makes it seem less harsh, and also makes the body absorb more nicotine," she said. "That means it's easier to start smoking and harder to quit."