The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and restrict other tobacco products could make waves in North Carolina's economy.

In a lengthy statement published Thursday on the FDA's website, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb suggested new restrictions are needed on electronic cigarette flavors to keep young people from using tobacco. He also proposed an outright ban on menthol-flavored traditional cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Gottlieb says these flavored products – particularly flavored vape pens and e-cigarettes – are part of reversing what he says were favorable trends in youth tobacco use.

“These data shock my conscience,” he writes, “from 2017 to 2018, there was a 78 percent increase in current e-cigarette use among high school students and a 48 percent increase among middle school students.”

Winston-Salem tobacco manufacturer Reynolds American, Inc. produces the Newport brand of menthol cigarettes, which is produced at the company's Tobaccoville plant. Newport is currently the second most popular cigarette in the United States behind Philip Morris USA's Marlboro. The company also produces the Vuse line of e-cigarettes.

In a statement to WFDD, the company says it supports age verification in-person and online, and that it shares the FDA's concerns about youth access to tobacco.

“While research shows that flavors play an important role in an adult smoker's transition out of smoking, we understand the FDA's concern that some flavors can play a role in increasing youth appeal. That is why we are happy to work with our nearly 200,000 contracted retail stores to address youth access to vapor products.”

However, Reynolds disagrees with Gottlieb's stance on menthol cigarettes, saying the published science does not support the idea that menthol leads to higher levels of initiation, dependence, or health risk. The company also says uneven regulation could stoke black market demand.

“Regulating menthol cigarettes (which comprise around a third of the market) differently than non-menthol cigarettes will increase the illegal market, fueling more criminal activity, adding further challenges to criminal and social justice issues,” the company says. “Further, as an illegal market in menthol cigarettes will increase, youth smoking access will increase.”

Anti-smoking groups have applauded the decision, as many have called for menthol regulation for years.

Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says the regulations could be historic if they're finalized.

“If adopted, these two proposals will have a greater impact in reducing tobacco use by youth and the African-American community than any regulatory measure ever undertaken by the federal government,” Myers said in a written statement.

Despite the praise, Myers says the FDA proposals don't go far enough, calling on the agency to ban menthol and mint flavors in e-cigarettes outright and stop sales of vapor products that have not passed a public health review.

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