WASHINGTON – Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds is suing the state of California in an effort to keep a controversial new line of cigarettes on shelves, the company announced Thursday in a press release.
R.J. Reynolds launched the products in question shortly after California voters endorsed a statewide ban on menthol cigarettes. It’s advertising these cigarettes, marketed under Reynolds’ popular menthol brands, Camel Crush and Newport, as being “crisp” and producing a “tropical oasis” that will be enjoyed by menthol smokers. One product, Newport Non-Menthol, is advertised for example as “The non-menthol for menthol smokers.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta and tobacco control advocates argue the products are flavored and are an end-run around California law, but Reynolds has argued the products “do not impart a distinguishable taste or aroma other than tobacco,” and thus can legally be sold.
The spat was set off late last month when Bonta wrote to Reynolds advising the company that its cigarettes were considered flavored, and thus could not legally be sold in the state. The letters did not order Reynolds to recall its products, or explicitly threaten any fines or legal action against the company, but the notice could drastically cut into Reynolds’ sales because it would open up retailers to fines if they sell the products. The law does not explicitly set out fines for manufacturers of these products.
The lawsuit could have implications for similar bans across the country. As of February, 10 state legislatures had introduced flavor ban bills, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Reynolds has had trouble challenging California’s menthol restrictions in the past. Earlier this year the company unsuccessfully sued the state in an attempt to block the menthol ban from going into effect.
The lawsuit is also the latest bump in the road for California as it attempts to enact the state’s flavor ban, which also applies to flavored e-cigarettes. STAT reported in January that flavored vapes were widely available in southern California stores despite the new law.
In a press release, Reynolds, which has threatened to sue vape shops selling illegal flavored products, urged Bonta to focus enforcement on those products, rather than its cigarettes.
“Reynolds has repeatedly called on enforcement officials in California to take action to combat the flood of illegal, unregulated, disposable vapes in kid-friendly flavors like Watermelon Bubble Gum and Rainbow Candy that are being shipped into the state’s ports from unknown origins,” the company wrote. “Prioritizing enforcement of these illicit vapor products, rather than focusing on compliant products, would better serve Californians.”
Advocates for menthol flavor bans say such policies will make it easier for current menthol smokers to quit, and help rectify racial inequities caused by targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes to African Americans. A 2011 study predicted that a menthol ban would prevent more than 600,000 deaths by 2050, including the deaths of over 200,000 African Americans.
STAT’s coverage of the commercial determinants of health is supported by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Our financial supporters are not involved in any decisions about our journalism.
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