Big tobacco fights FDA on menthol cigarette ban

An advisory panel told the FDA in March that it should consider banning menthol cigarettes, because research  showed menthol cigarette smokers were almost 10 percent less likely to quit smoking than non-menthol smokers -a phenomenon that was more pronounced in Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin and African-Americans, WebMD said. The panel concluded, "Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the U.S." istockphoto

RICHMOND, Va. - Menthol cigarettes are no riskier than regular cigarettes and shouldn't be regulated differently, the tobacco industry argues in a report to the Food and Drug Administration first obtained by The Associated Press.

The federal agency is considering banning the minty cigarette flavoring that makes menthols different from other smokes. Many health experts, including an FDA advisory panel, say consumers seem to think menthol flavoring offers health protection or benefits, and menthol cigarettes are disproportionately marketed to African Americans.

The tobacco industry sees menthols as a key area for growth in the shrinking cigarette market. The industry's draft report acknowledges that "all cigarettes are hazardous to health" and says there's no scientific basis to regulate menthols differently. The report concludes that menthol cigarettes don't make it easier for people to start or harder for them to quit or raise their risk of disease.

The report also asserts that a ban on menthol would lead to more contraband smokes.

A panel advising the FDA - the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee - is meeting Thursday and Friday to discuss its own report on the public health impacts of menthol cigarettes. It is scheduled to discuss its final recommendations Friday.

A draft of the FDA panel's report says menthol cigarettes may not be more risky, but their use is highest among minorities, teenagers and low-income people. The panel's report also says there's evidence consumers perceive that menthol cigarettes offer some form of health protection or medicinal benefit that non-menthol cigarettes don't, and it says menthols are disproportionately marketed to African Americans.

The FDA won the authority to regulate tobacco in June 2009. It can't ban nicotine or tobacco, but it can limit what goes into tobacco products, require the ingredients be publicized and limit marketing, especially to young people.

Panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. It doesn't have to follow their recommendations but usually does.

Most industry experts believe a ban is unlikely. But the panel could suggest tightening restrictions on menthol cigarettes, including cutting menthol levels or requiring bigger or more descriptive warning labels or higher prices. Or it could recommend further study.

A menthol ban would fall heavily on Lorillard Inc., whose Newport brand is the top-selling menthol cigarette in the U.S., with roughly 35 percent of the market. Lorillard, the country's third-largest and oldest continuously operating tobacco company, is based in Greensboro, N.C.

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