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What do you call a substance that makes a deadly product taste more pleasant, helps attract and hook new users, and is largely marketed at African-Americans and other people of color, contributing to their reduced life expectancy? The answer is menthol.

Menthols are the cigarettes used by 83 percent of African-American smokers, 51 percent of Asian smokers and 47 percent of Latino smokers.

By comparison, just 24 percent of white smokers use menthols. Young people often make menthols their first cigarette.

Public health advocates have been pushing for years to ban menthol in cigarettes.

In 2009, Congress banned the addition of flavorings to cigarettes -- with the sole exception of menthol. The law directed the Food and Drug Administration to consider a menthol ban and gave the agency the authority to enact one.

In 2011, a scientific advisory committee to the FDA found that removing menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit the public's health.

Yet the tobacco industry keeps pushing for delays and the FDA keeps granting them.

In July, the FDA released a preliminary scientific evaluation of the impact of menthol cigarettes on public health. The report noted that 88 percent of adult smokers start smoking before they turn 18.

For many kids menthols are the first cigarettes they try, making them a critical pathway to full-fledged smoking.

Surveys of middle school and high school kids show that three-quarters of African-American children, one-third of white kids, and more than half of Asian and Hispanic children smoke menthols.

The report concluded, based on an extensive analysis of the research, that menthol likely makes cigarettes less harsh and more palatable, increases the number of children and young adults who start smoking, and makes cigarettes more addictive and quitting more difficult.

These results, the report said, "make it likely that menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with nonmenthol cigarettes."

So why have U.S. regulators failed to take the step that the European Parliament took last month when it voted to ban menthol cigarettes starting in 2022?

Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke are the most common causes of illness, disability and death in the U.S. Smoking adds to people's risk of developing each of these diseases and makes each condition worse for people who have them.

Many of these conditions are more common, diagnosed later and result in worse outcomes for people of color.

Menthol cigarettes are unequal-opportunity killers that disproportionately hook young people, African-Americans and other people of color, harming their health and reducing their life expectancy.

We urge the FDA to ban menthol in cigarettes and help reduce the vast, avoidable differences in health that continue to separate Americans according to race and wealth.

The agency will accept comments on the proposal to ban the use of menthol in tobacco products through Friday; comments can be submitted at: tinyurl.com/l23jryr.

Phillip Gardiner is co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council based in Oakland and program officer at the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program, University of California Office of the President. Larry Cohen is founder and executive director of Oakland-based Prevention Institute. Dalila Butler is program coordinator at Prevention Institute.