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Debate Sharpens Over Menthol Cigarettes

Public Health Experts and Industry Representatives Disagree on Regulation of Menthol Cigarettes
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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.

"If you want [young people] to start smoking, give them something that tastes like candy," she says. "And guess what? Young smokers smoke more menthols."

The tobacco companies disagree. "Youths smoke what is accessible to them," True says.

Pediatrician Dana Best, MD, MPH, director of the Smoke Free Project at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who was not involved with the meeting, says kids often don't have much of a choice when it comes to what they smoke. After all, they can't legally buy cigarettes, so they take what they can get, where they can get it. It makes studying their habits very difficult.

In fact, researchers trying to study kids' smoking behavior are often confronted with a real catch-22. "You have to get their parents' permission to study them, but kids don't want their parents to know they smoke."

In her practice, she sees patients who fall into the two categories of most concern to the panel: youths and minorities, particularly African-Americans. So what would be the result of a ban on menthol?

"It would be another step along the path toward making cigarettes more unpalatable," says Best, who acknowledges that little is known about the health risks of menthol in cigarettes.

In fact, much of the publicly available data regarding menthol cigarettes is inconclusive or contradictory, and the issue before the committee will likely remain quite contentious over the next 12 months. However, says committee member and Harvard professor of public health Greg Connolly, "I hope everything we do shows respect and dignity to smokers. We are here to help smokers."

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