By TOM BREEN – Dec 8, 2010 1:04 PM ET
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A possible federal ban on menthol cigarettes would put people out of work during the worst economy in generations, according to a union representing tobacco workers, which says its members are being overlooked.
Busloads of workers from Greensboro, represented by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, traveled to Raleigh on Wednesday to protest outside a meeting of federal officials and various tobacco industry representatives.
The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products is in town as part of an extended examination of the use of menthol in cigarettes, one of the few growing sectors of the shrinking domestic cigarette industry.
Whatever the FDA decides will affect its members, according to the union, which represents workers at Greensboro, N.C.-based Lorillard Inc. Lorillard makes Newport cigarettes, the top-selling brand of menthols in the country.
“We’re talking about people’s livelihoods,” said Randy Fulk, who worked at Lorillard for 36 years and is now an international representative with the union. “People are trying to pay the bills, put food on the table and send their kids to school. The workers are the ones that are going to suffer.”
The union, which represents about 1,000 workers at Lorillard, says it’s being shut out of the process, since it wasn’t designated a “stakeholder,” entitled to formal participation in Wednesday’s meeting.
“They should hear from the ones who are going to be the most affected by this,” Fulk said.
The FDA says it wants to hear from the union, but that Wednesday’s meeting isn’t the best venue, according to a letter sent by Lawrence Deyton, director of the Center for Tobacco Products, to the union’s president, Frank Hurt.
“Though it would be ideal for the voices of every company, small and large, and every tobacco related industry sector to be heard, it would be logistically impossible and detract from the intention of these meetings: to engage in bi-directional, meaningful dialogue about tobacco product regulation,” Deyton wrote.
The FDA is studying the health effects of menthol cigarettes, and a scientific panel is scheduled to have recommendations for the agency to review by March. Industry groups from tobacco manufacturers to convenience stores have gone on the offensive, saying there’s no proof that menthol cigarettes cause greater harm than non-menthol varieties.
A ban on the minty smokes would be the most dramatic outcome, but it’s not the only possibility, according to Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association.
“The statute gives the FDA broad authority, from banning it to reducing it or further regulating it, or setting new performance standards,” he said.
The percentage of cigarette smokers using menthol brands grew from 31 percent in 2004 to 33.9 percent in 2008, according to a study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, with more significant growth among younger smokers.
A menthol ban would fall heavily on Lorillard, the country’s third-largest and oldest continuously operating tobacco company. Its Newport brand is the top-selling menthol cigarette in the U.S., with roughly 36 percent of the market.