WEDNESDAY, Aug. 18 (HealthDay News) -- With their enticing cool
and minty flavor, menthol cigarettes have emerged as one of the
most controversial products made by the tobacco industry.
Kids are particularly drawn to them, with nearly 45 percent of
smokers aged 12 to 17 using menthol cigarettes, according to a 2009
National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Most black teenaged smokers
-- and 82.7 percent of black adult smokers -- favor menthols, the
same survey found.
"The manufacturers would have you believe there is not a scintilla of evidence that menthol is no more dangerous than other cigarettes to the individual smoker, but we do not agree," said Ellen Vargyas, general counsel for the American Legacy Foundation, a smoking prevention and cessation organization in Washington, D.C., founded with funding from the landmark Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and state governments. "Over 80 percent of African-American smokers smoke menthol, and African-America smokers have the highest rates of lung cancer. We also know African-Americans with lung cancer are more likely to die from lung cancer."
In addition, the popularity of menthols among younger, newer
smokers suggests that maybe the minty taste does encourage people
to start, perhaps by masking the harsh taste of regular cigarettes,
"We know the younger you are and the newer the smoker you are, the more likely you are to smoke menthol," said Vargyas. "There is a very strong correlation between being a teenaged smoker and menthol cigarettes."
That's no coincidence, say smoking opponents: The tobacco
industry has long targeted youth and minorities for menthol
cigarette marketing, even manipulating menthol content in different
brands in an effort to recruit new smokers among youth, according
to the National Cancer Institute and the Harvard School of Public
The debate over how menthols should be regulated lit up again
last month, during the second round of hearings held by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory
The advisory committee was established by the Family Smoking
Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law by President
Barack Obama in June 2009. The legislation gave the FDA
unprecedented power to restrict the marketing of tobacco
While the law bans cigarette makers from adding candy or
fruit-like flavors such as clove, cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa or
strawberry to cigarettes, legislators hedged when it came to
menthols, the most popular flavoring by far.
Although menthol was not banned from cigarettes, the law
stressed that nothing prevented it from regulating menthol as well.
In fact, the act required the FDA advisory committee to consider
menthol cigarettes impact on public health -- including its use
among children and minorities-- as its first order of business.
During the first round of hearings in March, the advisory
committee sought answers about the addictiveness of menthol
cigarettes, whether they are more harmful than regular cigarettes
and whether the flavor encourages kids in particular to take up
Anti-smoking advocates say there is no evidence that menthols --
which account for an estimated 33.9 percent of the U.S. cigarette
market -- are less deadly than any other cigarette. Research from
the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in fact,
suggests that they are more addictive, making it harder for smokers
to quit, particularly blacks and Latinos.
During the hearings, tobacco industry representatives defended
their products, saying menthols are no more harmful than other
cigarettes and should not be singled out for a ban.
"We don't think there is any evidence or even any suggestion that youth would choose not to smoke if menthol products weren't available," said Bill True, senior vice president of research and development for Lorillard Tobacco Co., the makers of Newport's. "Kids don't smoke because there are menthol cigarettes. Kids smoke for a variety of reasons which are probably quite complex."
"Cigarettes do pose significant dangers to an individual's health," True added. "In dealing with regulating the product, we believe the FDA should be looking at those things that are the most significant."
On that point, anti-smoking advocates agree. Cigarettes are by
their very nature a deadly product, and legislation to sharply
regulate their manufacture, sale and marketing can't come a moment
too soon, said Vargyas.
Mitch Zeller, vice president for policy and strategic
communications at Pinney Associates in Washington, D.C. and the
director of the FDA's Office of Tobacco Programs during the Clinton
Administration, noted that there were some limitations to the
family smoking prevention laws reach. While the FDA has far more
power over the industry than before, it cannot ban all cigarettes
outright, nor can it force cigarette companies to reduce nicotine
levels to zero, he said.
However, he said, the legislation requires tobacco companies to
disclose comprehensive information about the contents and
manufacturing process for tobacco products. The tobacco companies,
he added, have been less than forthcoming with their data about the
marketing and manufacture of menthols.
"The industry presentation on the issues that matter the most -- those related to marketing that influences kids and any issue related to the initiation of smoking -- was non-responsive," Zeller said. "The advisory committee is in need of more information to do its job."
The FDA advisory committee has nine members and includes
physicians, scientists and public health experts; the tobacco
industry is represented by three non-voting members. The committee
has until March 2011 to report its menthol findings to the U.S.
Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health has more on