By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A03
Federal officials began grappling Tuesday with one of the thorniest issues surrounding the regulation of tobacco: whether to ban menthol, the most popular cigarette flavoring, which is smoked by millions of Americans every day.
The issue carries great importance for public health advocates and tobacco executives. But it also has racial implications, since menthol cigarettes are overwhelmingly popular among African Americans.
A scientific advisory panel that will advise the Food and Drug Administration on regulating tobacco opened a two-day meeting Tuesday and began reviewing hundreds of published studies on menthol cigarettes. The panel, largely made up of scientists, physicians and public health experts, has a year to make a recommendation to the FDA on menthol cigarettes, which are used by about 26 percent of smokers and make up almost one-third of the $70 billion U.S. cigarette market.
Menthol cigarettes are especially popular among young smokers. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 62 percent of middle-school students who smoke begin with menthol cigarettes, whose minty taste can mask the harshness of tobacco.
About 75 percent of African American smokers use menthol brands, and tobacco companies heavily advertise menthol products in black communities and media.
Many African American smokers view menthol cigarettes as "soothing" and "smooth," and less harsh and dangerous than regular cigarettes, according to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there is no evidence that menthol cigarettes are less lethal than regular cigarettes. Although African Americans smoke fewer cigarettes compared with white smokers, they have higher rates of lung cancer, stroke and other tobacco-related diseases.
"When you peel away the layers, this is an economic issue for the tobacco industry," said William S. Robinson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, which wants the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes. "We're talking about $18 billion a year; that's a serious hit for them," Robinson said in an interview.
When Congress passed a historic law last year that gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco, it also banned candy and spice flavorings such as chocolate and clove, saying cigarette makers used those products to hook youngsters into a lifetime addiction. But it exempted menthol from the ban, saying it wanted the FDA to study the issue and report by 2012 whether restrictions on it would serve the public health.
That prompted a letter of protest to Congress from seven former U.S. health secretaries, who said that allowing menthol-cigarette sales to continue would "trample the health" of African Americans. They called it a "loophole big enough for a herd of wild animals to romp through."
Lorillard, which makes Newport, the country's most popular brand of menthol cigarettes, said in a statement Tuesday that menthol cigarettes are no more dangerous to health than standard cigarettes. "Menthol, obviously, has been used for decades in food, drink, cosmetics and other products," the company said. "And the science is clear and compelling that there is no differing health risk between menthol and non-menthol products. With respect to public health, using the best methods available to science, it is clear a menthol cigarette is just another cigarette and should be treated no differently."
But the scientific advisory panel has not yet reached that conclusion, and it spent Tuesday listening to FDA staff members present their review of 343 research papers on menthol cigarettes, published between 1921 and 2009.
Under the law passed last year, the FDA can demand for the first time internal studies and data from the tobacco industry. One of the advisory panel's goals during its first meeting is to determine what additional information it will request from the industry.
Robinson said that could be key in settling the debate about whether menthol poses a particular danger to public health.
"We still have questions about the role of menthol, regarding initiation of smoking and continued addiction and difficulty in quitting," he said. "Under this new law, the industry has to turn over documents at a level that's unprecedented. They have to share their scientific information. When we begin to know what they know, hopefully that will lead to a ban on menthol products."