The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday it will begin the process of banning menthol tobacco cigarettes, as well as all flavored cigars — a move heralded as one expected to improve the health of groups most likely to smoke menthol products, including children and Black Americans.

"With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products," acting FDA commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said in a statement.

The regulatory agency stopped short, however, of including menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.

Still, public health experts applauded the move.

"The FDA has taken a historic, life-saving step," Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in a statement. "Banning menthol cigarettes will most assuredly save lives, eliminate great suffering, and reduce health care costs."

The FDA's action was in response to a lawsuit filed by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Action on Smoking and Health. The groups sued because the agency had not answered a citizen petition sent to the agency in 2013 urging it to ban menthol as a flavor in cigarettes.

Thursday's announcement is just the first step of a long regulatory process to transition the market away from menthol products. It is expected that menthol cigarettes will be available for at least two more years.

Advocates of the ban say that's not necessarily a bad thing, because it provides time for more smoking cessation programs to develop plans targeting menthol smokers.

Menthol is used in tobacco products to create a cooling sensation in the throat, making it easier to inhale the smoke and nicotine.

Black Americans stand to gain the most by the ban, because the vast majority of Black smokers — 85 percent — use menthol cigarettes. They are more likely than white Americans to be diagnosed with lung cancer at more advanced stages, when the disease is more difficult to treat. Black men have the highest lung cancer death rate in the country.

Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, said Thursday's announcement was "game-changing."

"For generations, the tobacco industry has intentionally targeted Black and other communities with marketing of menthol cigarettes, resulting in tobacco-related death and disease as well as health disparities," Wimmer wrote in a statement, adding that close to half of all kids start smoking with menthol cigarettes."

Because the vast majority of adult smokers start smoking as teenagers, experts say a ban on menthol has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of people who begin smoking.

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