WASHINGTON -- U.S. health authorities announced Thursday their intent to soon ban menthol cigarettes, adding the action would save hundreds of thousands of lives.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to issue new product standards that would classify menthol as a flavor, which are banned in cigarettes, and also ban all flavored cigars.
Menthol "has anesthetic properties and qualities that help mask the harshness and irritation of tobacco smoke," acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock told reporters.
In a statement, the FDA added that studies show menthol facilitates progression to regular smoking, particularly among youths and young adults.
Further, the agency said, banning the product would help reduce racial disparities in health, since it is estimated that among all Black smokers, 85 % smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 30 % of white smokers.
The FDA estimates there are nearly 18.6 million menthol cigarette smokers in the United States.
Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the country, with 480,000 tobacco-related fatalities recorded each year.
Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said the agency would seek to publish the new proposed rules within a year, and they would then be open for a period of public comment.
The measure will not however apply to e-cigarettes. The administration of former president Donald Trump banned flavored versions of e-cigarettes that use pods, but left menthol exempt.