THURSDAY, Nov. 18, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- The battle over menthol-flavored cigarettes heats up again Thursday as a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel continues a series of hearings on whether to ban the cigarettes.
The FDA's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee consists of nine members and includes doctors, scientists and public health experts. The tobacco industry is represented by three non-voting members. The committee has until next March to report its menthol findings to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Much of the controversy centers on research that shows that children are particularly drawn to menthol cigarettes, with nearly 45 percent of smokers aged 12 to 17 using them, 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 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 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and state governments.
"Over 80 percent of African-American smokers smoke menthol, and African-American smokers have the highest rates of lung cancer. We also know African-Americans with lung cancer are more likely to die from lung cancer," she told HealthDay.
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, Vargyas added.
"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 U.S. National Cancer Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health.
The debate over how menthols should be regulated was last discussed in July, during the second round of hearings held by the tobacco products advisory committee.
The 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 products.
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 advisory committee to consider menthol cigarettes' impact on public health -- including its use among children and minorities -- as its first order of business.
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 suggests that they are more addictive, making it harder for smokers to quit, particularly blacks and Latinos.
During previous 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 cigarettes. "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.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health has more on menthol cigarettes.