Banning menthol cigarettes could save 600,000 premature deaths by 2050, according to new data released today in the American Journal of Public Health. A third of those deaths are among African-Americans, who predominately smoke cigarettes with menthol flavoring.

“Tobacco is not an equal-opportunity killer, and the link between menthol smoking and African Americans cannot be overemphasized, nor can it be overlooked,” said Dr. David Abrams, senior author of the study and executive director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation.

With tobacco companies heavily marketing menthol cigarettes in minority communities, as many as 80 percent of African-Americans smokers smoke menthol cigarettes over other brands. African-American smokers die from lung cancer more than whites, even though their overall exposure to cigarette smoke is lower.

Menthol flavoring is derived from peppermint plants and is thought to mask the irritation from cigarette smoke, cooling the mouth and throat. For that reason, some smokers perceive the health risks as lower with these types of cigarettes.

While the flavoring alone does not directly increase rates of lung cancer or lung disease, some studies suggest that menthol cigarettes are more addictive, making it harder for the smoker to quit. Despite a 22 percent decline in cigarette sales, menthol cigarette sales remained the same from 2000 to 2005.

“For decades, tobacco companies have preyed upon these populations, and these communities are paying the price,” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, Advisor for LGBT Policy & Racial Justice at the Center for American Progress. “The FDA scientific advisory committee has concluded that removing menthol from the marketplace will save lives, and that should be our highest priority.”

Today, in lieu of the new data, four organizations — American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, Center for American Progress and The American Legacy Foundation — support the findings and called for menthol cigarettes to be taken off the market.

“A majority of African-American smokers [also] support a menthol ban,” said Dr. Jonathan Klein, Director of the Julius B. Richmond Center, based on data collected in the annual Social Climate Survey.

The FDA is currently reviewing conclusions from the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee Meeting in March 2011 that stated public health would benefit from a menthol ban. The FDA has until mid-June to give its initial response.