Menthol Cigarette Ban: Too Much Control for FDA?

David Kaufman, M.D. Health Pro
  • Recently, controversy had surrounded mentholated cigarettes. Menthol, a minty-tasting additive, may anesthetize nerve endings slightly, making cigarettes seem less harsh and bitter. Mentholated cigarettes seem to appeal more to African American smokers: 79% of African American smokers preferred mentholated cigarettes, compared to between 13 and 20% of white smokers. Age also plays an important role: almost half of smokers between 12 and 17-years-old preferred mentholated cigarettes. Mentholated cigarettes may also be more difficult to quit.

    Because mentholated cigarettes may feel easier to smoke, some have charged that menthol is added to make smoking easier and more appealing to young smokers. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health implies that tobacco companies began to offer cigarettes with varying amounts of menthol in order to attract different groups to start or continue smoking. Tobacco companies have denied that menthol levels were purposely manipulated.  In a memo attributed to the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, menthol was expected to make it easier to begin smoking because it tastes similar to mint candies, so mentholated cigarettes would be a familiar flavor.

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    In a bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given the authority to regulate the contents of cigarettes, including the nicotine level. This bill has not been signed into law yet, and President Bush has indicated that he will veto it. Interestingly, according to the bill, the FDA would be allowed to regulate, but not eliminate menthol. One exception: if menthol were found to be directly harmful, the FDA could ban it. Under the bill, the FDA would have the authority to ban other flavored additives, like cinnamon and clove, which may make smoking more attractive to young people. Many congressional representatives admit that they had to compromise by making an exception for mentholated cigarettes, because the bill would never have been passed if the FDA were given the authority to ban menthol. Mentholated cigarettes make up approximately 25% of all cigarettes sold in the US. Some see the menthol exception as discriminating against African Americans, implying that the bill in its current version gives menthol a protected status, which amounts to a pass to continue to focus on selling cigarettes to African American smokers.

    This is a very sensitive subject. Putting cigarettes under the FDA’s control is quite controversial (more on that in the next blog.) Menthol may not be harmful in and of itself, but its overall effects, by encouraging people to smoke, or by making it difficult to quit, may result in more lung disease and cancer.

    How many readers smoke or have smoked mentholated cigarettes? How many of you began smoking with mentholated cigarettes? Did you feel that menthol made smoking easier or more pleasant? Would you support the FDA’s authority to ban menthol?


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Published On: August 06, 2008