WASHINGTON Adding menthol to cigarettes may increase the likelihood of addiction and make it easier for young people to start smoking, according to preliminary findings of a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel considering whether to recommend a ban or otherwise restrict menthol cigarettes.
The Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee said the scientific evidence showed that “menthol has cooling and anesthetic effects that reduce that harshness of cigarette smoke” and this reduction “could facilitate initiation or early persistence of smoking by youth.”
The committee also said menthol is likely to make low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes more satisfying, “and smokers who switch to low-yield cigarettes for health concerns may be more likely to continue to smoke rather than quit.” In addition, the panel said that “it is biologically plausible that menthol makes cigarette smoking more addictive.”
The FDA has already banned candy, fruit and spice flavorings in cigarettes because of their potential to lure young smokers. But the 2009 law that gave the agency regulatory authority over cigarettes specified that menthol should be evaluated separately.
And the menthol issue is politically charged because mentholated brands make up about 30 percent of the cigarette market and are favored by about 80 percent of black smokers, who also suffer from disproportionately high rates of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.
Some black civic groups, including the Congress of Racial Equality, have objected that a ban on menthols would unfairly target black consumers. Others, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argue that menthol should not be treated more leniently than other flavorings that make cigarettes more alluring – especially to young smokers.
The preliminary findings were contained in draft chapters of a forthcoming report by the 12-member committee and were posted on the FDA website ahead of a panel meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
The final report is due by March 23. Its recommendations are non-binding and could range from urging no action to outlawing use of the mint-like flavoring.
While FDA policy-makers usually embrace the recommendations of their advisory panels, many analysts – including some anti-smoking advocates – expect the agency to stop short of imposing a total ban on menthol.
On the question of whether menthol smokers are at greater risk of contracting tobacco-caused diseases than smokers of non-menthol cigarettes, the advisory group said the evidence is inconclusive.
“There are no surprises here,” said Michael Siegel, an expert on smoking’s public health effects and a professor at Boston University. “There is no evidence that menthol cigarettes are more harmful, so if that is your criterion, then a ban on menthol is not supported.
“However, menthol clearly masks the harshness of cigarette smoking, so if you look at this from a marketing perspective, yes, of course menthol contributes to increased cigarette sales,” Siegel said in an e-mail.
Philip Gorham, an analyst who tracks tobacco companies for the investment research firm Morningstar Inc., said the draft slightly bolsters the possibility that the panel will recommend restrictions on menthol short of a ban.
Gorham said the committee is dominated by “anti-tobacco people” but “they appear to have taken a pretty balanced view, particularly with the disease risk.”
“I was expecting (the panel) to be more critical. It feels like they’ve left the door open” to do something short of recommending a ban, Gorham said.
No matter what the panel recommends, Gorham said he believes FDA will steer clear of a ban on menthol, opting instead for restrictions on marketing or on limits on menthol or other cigarette ingredients.
One of the three major U.S. tobacco companies, Lorillard Inc., depends on a menthol brand, Newport, for about 90 percent of its revenue.
Last week, Lorillard and a second tobacco firm, RJ Reynolds, sued the FDA to block the expert panel’s recommendations. The suit alleges that at least three members of the panel have conflicts of interest because they have worked for drug companies selling smoking-cessation products and have served as paid expert witnesses against tobacco companies.
Lorillard spokesman Greg Perry said the draft documents appear to support the company’s position that “a menthol cigarette is no more dangerous than a non-menthol cigarette … as it relates to diseases caused by cigarette smoking.”
“While we don’t know what non-binding recommendation the FDA advisory panel will ultimately reach, we believe that the evidence clearly shows there is no justification for increased regulation of menthol cigarettes,” Perry said.
Lorillard and other cigarette makers say that banning menthol would create a black market, causing FDA to lose control of the tobacco regulatory effort and costing governments billions of dollars in lost tax revenue.
Spokesmen for RJ Reynolds, which makes Kool and Camel menthols, and Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro menthol, declined to comment.