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OPINION: Banning menthol is critical to public health, including for Hispanic and Latino communities

Jose Cucalon Calderon
Jose Cucalon Calderon

One of the most critical steps the Biden administration can take to improve public health for all is to ban menthol cigarettes. This isn't just about curbing smoking rates nationwide. It’s about addressing a deadly, cancer-causing product that has been aggressively marketed to minority communities for far too long. As a pediatrician, son of a daily smoker and proud Latino, I urge the White House to act now to save lives, protect kids and reduce health disparities.

The industry’s efforts perpetuate a particularly vicious cycle in Hispanic and Latino communities, where significant health care barriers have long existed, including less access to preventative services and quality medical care that result in higher health disparities. As a pediatrician, I've seen the consequences firsthand. During my residency, I worked with children suffering from severe asthma complications in the intensive care unit. Nearly every child I treated came from a family that identified as a minority and lived in a home where one or both parents regularly smoked.

In my personal life, I had to seek specialty care as a child due to difficult-to-control asthma. At the time, both of my parents smoked around me and my siblings daily, complicating and contributing to my asthma management. I remember holding my breath when going into my father’s study to talk to him, just to keep myself from coughing. My mother quit within a couple years — after I started breaking her cigarettes. My father struggles to quit to this day.

Much of what I’ve seen firsthand in my personal and professional life is the result of aggressive industry tactics aimed at hooking each new generation — with devastating consequences. For decades, Big Tobacco has systematically marketed menthol cigarettes to minority communities, including Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S., and more broadly in developing countries around the world. From advertisements in Spanish language magazines to sponsorship of cultural and music events and a higher concentration of tobacco retailers in Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S., the industry has insinuated itself into our culture.

Today, 50 percent of Hispanic smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to 29 percent of white smokers. Menthol cigarettes have had a harmful impact on the health of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Cancer, heart disease, and stroke — all of which can be caused by cigarette smoking — are leading causes of death among Hispanic Americans. Diabetes is another leading cause of death among Hispanics; and the risk of developing diabetes is 30 percent to 40 percent higher for cigarette smokers than nonsmokers.

In Nevada, the issue is particularly relevant — and damaging to public health. The hospitality industry is the state’s largest employer, and its smoke-filled resorts expose millions each year to secondhand and thirdhand smoke, none more so than the largely Hispanic and Latino workers who spend every single day surrounded by plumes of smoke. Eliminating menthol cigarettes would represent a significant step toward reducing harmful health effects felt by Latinos, Hispanics and workers in industries with smoke-filled air throughout Nevada — including their children.

Moreover, a ban would help hundreds of thousands of smokers nationwide quit once and for all and keep many more from ever picking up a cigarette. A study published early this year found nearly a quarter of menthol cigarette users quit smoking within a year or two of a ban.

Recent polling also shows voters overwhelmingly support a ban on menthol cigarettes, with 58 percent in favor compared to 29 percent opposed.

Most importantly, banning menthol cigarettes would eliminate a product that the American Academy of Pediatrics has called out for being “designed and marketed to addict children, plain and simple.” That’s because menthol cools and numbs the throat, making it easier for kids to start smoking and potentially luring them into a deadly, lifelong addiction. Flavors have long driven youth initiation of tobacco products, and menthol is the sole remaining flavored cigarette on the market after Congress eliminated all other flavors in 2009.

It's been more than a decade since the FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee determined that menthol cigarettes are more addictive, easier to start smoking and harder to quit and declared that the “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.” It’s also been more than two years since President Joe Biden reignited the Cancer Moonshot, an ambitious plan focused on health equity that aims to cut cancer deaths in half during the next 25 years. And just last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a smoking cessation framework, which aims to support and accelerate smoking cessation and reduce the smoking-related disparities that plague minority communities nationwide.

Not banning menthol runs counter to and ignores the ample scientific evidence backing those efforts. That makes the White House’s decision to once again miss its own deadline at the end of last month all the more perplexing. The time to act is now, and the science is clear. A menthol ban benefits the health of all, protects our kids and our workers, and helps make the Cancer Moonshot initiative a reality. Health policy needs to be about just that — health. Let’s leave the fumes to the dragons, not our kids and our workforce.

Dr. Jose Cucalon Calderon is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, e-cigarette champion for the Nevada Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and co-chair of the National Hispanic Medical Association, Nevada Chapter.

The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].


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