SILVER SPRING, Md. — Taking menthol cigarettes off the market would benefit public health, the Food and Drug Administration’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee concluded Friday after a year of reviewing the issue.
Panel members stopped short of recommending specific regulatory action by the FDA, such as banning menthol cigarettes, which are preferred by about 30% of smokers overall and 80% of African-American smokers. Minty menthol has been the only cigarette flavor on the market since Congress gave the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products in 2009.
Although scientific evidence doesn’t suggest menthol cigarettes are more likely to cause smoking-related illnesses than regular cigarettes, their availability probably increases the number of smokers in the general population, particularly African Americans and youths, the committee said in its final report. One contributing factor is manufacturers’ marketing of menthol cigarettes, the report said.
In addition, the report said, African Americans find it more difficult to quit smoking menthol cigarettes than non-menthol cigarettes, the committee said.
“None of us know what the FDA will do,” committee Chairman Jonathan Samet, a preventive medicine professor at the University of Southern California‘s Keck School of Medicine, said after the panel met at the agency’s headquarters.
The FDA has no deadline for taking action related to menthol cigarettes, said Lawrence Deyton, director of the agency’s Center for Tobacco Products.
“We reached a very important milestone today,” Deyton said. “But I need to be very clear that … the report does not set FDA policy.”
Deyton said the agency will conduct its own review of the science related to menthol cigarettes and issue its first “progress report” in about 90 days. The tobacco advisory committee’s findings, he said, won’t have any immediate impact on the availability of menthol cigarettes.
Murray Kessler, president and CEO of Lorillard, which makes top-selling menthol brand Newport, called the advisory panel’s conclusion about menthol cigarettes’ impact on the public health “unsubstantiated.” Kessler predicted that after a lengthy review of the evidence, the FDA won’t ban menthol cigarettes.
Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of Legacy, urged the FDA to act promptly. Legacy, an anti-tobacco advocacy organization, was created as a result of a 1998 settlement in which the tobacco industry agreed to change the way cigarettes are marketed and pay the states about $206 billion.
“Many menthol smokers will likely use a ban on menthol as an opportunity to quit, and it will save their lives,” Healton said. “Without the minty lure of menthol cigarettes, fewer youth will be enticed to take up this deadly addiction.”
Dan Heck, one of three non-voting industry representatives on the advisory committee, questioned the committee’s conclusion that fewer youths will start smoking if menthol cigarettes are banned.
Some countries in which menthols represent less than 1% of the market have higher youth smoking rates than the USA, said Heck, a scientist at Lorillard.
The tobacco industry has long argued that a menthol ban would spur an illegal market. Thursday, Jim Tozzi of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, a lobbying organization, told advisory committee members that China produces 400 billion cigarettes a year and would be a likely supplier of contraband menthols.
Samet acknowledged that the issue of contraband menthol cigarettes “needs attention” but was beyond the scope of the advisory committee’s charge.