The federal government is contemplating banning menthol cigarettes on the grounds that they pose a substantial public-health risk.
But federally funded research published this week seems to weaken that argument.
An Food and Drug Administration prohibition on the sale of menthol cigarettes would parallel its ban on other flavored cigarettes in 2009. At issue is whether menthol cigarettes, perhaps because they may taste less harsh than others, might lure more people, particularly young ones, into smoking.
Other concerns: Are menthol cigarettes more addictive than others and thus harder to give up? Are people who smoke them at greater risk of developing diseases such as lung cancer? And does the availability of menthol cigarettes pose a special threat to blacks, among whom they are far more popular than among the general smoking population?
A big federal report, finalized last Friday by the federally-established Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee and submitted March 23 to the FDA for review, examined existing research. It found that while menthol cigarettes do not appear to increase individuals’ risk of disease, they still have widespread effect on public health by increasing the number of smokers overall. The committee’s recommendation to the FDA: “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”
The new study, funded by the National Cancer Institute and published Wednesday in its journal, analyzed data for nearly 86,000 people. It found that people who preferred menthol cigarettes smoked fewer cigarettes per day than those who chose regular cigarettes. The two groups had equal odds of quitting smoking during the 4.3-year follow-up period. And people who smoked menthol cigarettes were both less likely to get lung cancer and less likely to die from it than other smokers.
The study’s surprising conclusion: “The findings suggest that menthol cigarettes are no more, and perhaps less, harmful than nonmenthol cigarettes.”
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
That latest finding alone does not, as some reports have suggested, mean that the government’s concerns over menthol cigarettes are unfounded. But it does call into question the wisdom of making a big change such as banning their sale without fully understanding all potential ramifications.