by Marie Curry, managing attorney

Today is National No Smoking Day.

But a recent decision by Ohio lawmakers does anything but support a smoke-free state - especially when it comes to youth and people of color.

The battle against Big Tobacco has been a long one, but its most recent iteration in our state started in late 2022 and early 2023 when city councils in Columbus and Cleveland contemplated bans on the sale of menthol flavored tobacco products. In response, some Ohio lawmakers started working to limit cities and municipalities from regulating smoking, vaping, and e-cigarette use. Governor DeWine was successful in vetoing an earlier attempt, but his latest veto in July of 2023 was overridden by House lawmakers in late 2023.

This meant local efforts to protect Ohioans from these highly addictive and health-harming tobacco products were stymied. And many advocates felt the state chose Big Tobacco interests over our collective health.

While the FDA has already banned cigarettes with “kid-appealing flavors” like cherry and chocolate, the FDA exempted menthol from the ban - and that is where the real battleground is here in Ohio. According to the CDC, menthol is “a chemical compound found naturally in peppermint and other similar plants.” It can be found in an array of commercial tobacco products including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, nicotine pouches, and more. Over 18 million Americans smoke menthol cigarettes

If any one additive makes tobacco even more toxic, it’s menthol. The facts about menthol may come as a surprise to many Americans:

Menthol makes it easier to start and continue using tobacco products. According to the CDC, “menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat and airways, making the smoke feel less harsh and easier to inhale.” This makes tobacco products containing menthol more appealing for newer, younger consumers. In Ohio, we know that around 20% of high school students use e-cigarettes - a rate much higher than many other states. And national statistics show that half of smokers ages 12-17 smoke menthol cigarettes.

Menthol makes nicotine even more addictive. According to the American Lung Association, “studies have mapped the brain to show how menthol cigarette users have higher levels of nicotinic receptors in their brain. This is because, in addition to nicotine binding to brain receptors, menthol increases the number of these receptors, making the brain even more dependent on the continued use of not just tobacco, but menthol specifically.” So not only does menthol make it easier to start using tobacco, it also makes it much harder to stop.

Tobacco products containing menthol are marketed and disproportionately used by minority groups including Black Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, and people who live below the poverty level. While cultural factors may be at play, a large portion of this use is attributed to targeted marketing to these groups who already face so many other inequities in American society. For example, tactics like billboards in impoverished communities and ads in magazines featuring Black Americans have resulted in nearly 85% of African American smokers using menthol cigarettes as compared with under 30% percent of White smokers according to the FDA.

In light of the caustic effects of menthol, advocates feel this recent evolution in Ohio law is blind to the health of its constituency. In response, work is happening at many levels. The Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition continues its efforts to raise awareness and advance the effort to prohibit menthol flavoring in tobacco products. In the Fall of 2022, NEOBHC submitted comments advocating for this step, supported by Hospice of the Western Reserve, the Center for Community Solutions, and the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. More recently, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has invited organizations to sign-on to a simple statement “prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes, flavored e-cigarettes, flavored cigars and all other flavored tobacco products.” To date, over 100 organizations have added their support. In many cities, local impetus remains to implement regulatory laws. Finally, the FDA has taken up the issue - but there is pushback on many fronts.

The next best small step we can all take is to educate broadly about the impact of this recent decision in Ohio and the caustic health effects of tobacco products containing menthol. Many Ohioans don’t even know what menthol is, let alone how it is blatantly pushed to minority communities. The issue won’t go away - and neither will the caustic health effects taking their toll every day.