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Debate Sharpens Over Menthol Cigarettes

Public Health Experts and Industry Representatives Disagree on Regulation of Menthol Cigarettes
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 31, 2010 -- Representatives from three major tobacco companies, speaking before a committee tasked with advising the federal government on tobacco regulation, defended menthol cigarettes against charges that they put smokers' health at greater risk than regular cigarettes.

"Menthol does not make cigarettes more harmful," says William R. True, senior vice president of Lorillard, the maker of the best-selling menthol cigarette, Newport. Representatives from R.J. Reynolds and Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, also spoke.

Several public health experts, meanwhile, argued for a total ban of the additive, referring to its role in cigarettes as "sweetening the poison."

So began the second and final day of the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee's inaugural meeting in Washington, D.C. The committee, formed following the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in June 2009, has a year to review available research -- both publicly available studies as well as unpublished tobacco industry documents -- in order to determine where the balance should lie.

"We need to review all the evidence and get insight into the scope of the research that has not been published," says committee chairman Jonathan M. Samet, MD, of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

The committee spent the afternoon hashing out the types of information it would require in order to make its recommendations. Much of what they hope to review concerns industry marketing practices, the chemical makeup of menthol and what effects it has on human physiology, as well as any role it might play in a person's decision to start smoking or their efforts to quit.

A decision to ban menthol outright would have a huge impact on the tobacco industry, as menthol cigarettes account for approximately a quarter of the market. But, argue advocates of such a ban, the FDA has already banned all other flavored cigarettes.

"There's no distinction, no logic" to allowing menthol cigarettes to remain on the market while other flavors are banned, says Philip Gardiner, PhD, of the University of California's Tobacco Related Disease Research Program.

Who Smokes Menthol Cigarettes?

Much of the day's discussion focused on a few key issues. Foremost among them was the appeal of menthol cigarettes for different ethnic groups, including African-Americans, and also for young smokers, who many believe favor menthols because they mask the harshness of regular tobacco.

African-Americans account for more than three-quarters of the market for menthol cigarettes. Gardiner, who says this a social justice issue, calls the opportunity for the FDA to ban menthol "a historic opportunity. ... At a minimum they should rein in [tobacco companies'] predatory marketing campaigns that have bombarded the African-American community."

Cheryl Healton, PhD, professor of public health at Columbia University and president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, also supports a ban, in particular because of menthol's appeal to young and new smokers.

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