FDA Weighs Restrictions, Possible Ban On Menthol Cigarettes

The Food and Drug Administration is considering restricting or even possibly banning menthol cigarettes. Public health advocates are pushing for this, saying menthol makes cigarettes more addictive and makes it easier for young people to start smoking. But opponents argue there's no evidence that menthol is bad and even some evidence it may be less risky. They also worry about creating a dangerous black market for menthol cigarettes, especially in African American communities, where menthol is most popular.

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The Food and Drug Administration is trying to decide what, if anything, it should do about menthol cigarettes. The FDA now has the power to regulate menthols and public health advocates are pushing that agency to ban them. They say the cool flavoring encourages kids to start smoking and makes it harder for smokers to quit. But as NPR's Rob Stein reports, the idea of banning menthol is raising concerns beyond the tobacco companies.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Millions of Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, smokers like Larry Brown. I ran into Brown having a smoke outside his office in downtown Washington. He's 46 and started smoking menthols when he was 15.

LARRY BROWN: I grew up on menthols. My mother smoked menthols so I used to steal them from her so I got a taste for menthols.

STEIN: Brown just likes the way his Newports feel.

BROWN: Just the taste, there's something about it. It feels good, you know, after a meal or when I wake up in the morning. It's less harsh than, like, a regular, the regular cigarettes.

STEIN: But those Newports could become a thing of the past if anti-smoking advocates have their way. David Abrams of the American Legacy Foundation is among those pushing the FDA to make menthols illegal.

DAVID ABRAMS: Menthol makes the poison of the cigarette go down much more easily.

STEIN: To begin with, Abrams says, menthols make smoking much more appealing for kids.

ABRAMS: Because the experience of the first cigarette can be very harsh on the throat, and if the menthol wasn't there to anesthetize the throat and give that cool pleasant taste, it's possible that a lot of kid would either not start or all. Or if they tried a cigarette would not progress to become addicted regular smokers.

STEIN: And Abrams says menthol may enhance the addictiveness of nicotine, making it harder to kick the habit.

ABRAMS: There are some studies suggesting that it's more addictive and more attractive, both for genetic and taste and neuroscience reasons for certain people, and especially African-Americans.

STEIN: About 80 percent of African-American smokers smoke menthols. There's a big debate about why - whether tobacco target them, whether it's cultural, something biological, or maybe a combination of all that.

Whatever the explanation, some charge that banning menthol cigarettes would be discriminatory. Niger Innis is with the Congress for Racial Equality.

NIGER INNIS: It's clearly that menthol cigarettes are being targeted because it is disproportionately liked and consumed by African-Americans. It is discriminatory.

STEIN: But others disagree. Valerie Yerger is with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, at the University of California, San Francisco.

VALERIE YERGER: I don't see that as being discriminatory at all. I would say that it would be a good thing to ban menthol because it would mean saving a number of African-American lives.

STEIN: Tobacco companies dispute all of this. Neil Wilcox is with Lorillard, which makes Newports - the most popular menthol brand.

NEIL WILCOX: The reality is there are simply no scientific evidence that menthol adds to the initiation of smoking with youth or adults. Nor is there any evidence that menthol exacerbates addiction. Nor is there any evidence that menthol prevents individuals from quitting smoking.

STEIN: And the cigarette companies aren't the only ones who oppose banning menthol. The National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement executives also oppose banning menthol. One worry is that a ban would create an underground market for menthols.

Lyle Beckwith is a senior vice president for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

LYLE BECKWITH: There are individuals ranging from manufacturers in China to international smugglers, to street gangs that are just licking their chops hoping that menthol gets banned so they can just jump into that marketplace.

STEIN: And, Beckwith says, that could end up making it easier for kids to get cigarettes, as well as have other unintended consequences.

BECKWITH: That black market doesn't check ID and that black market doesn't just limit itself to menthol cigarettes. There's no stopping them from selling counterfeit regular cigarettes and other illegal products - illegal drugs.

STEIN: The FDA hasn't decided what to do. It could ban menthol outright or limit the amount of menthol allowed in cigarettes. Or do nothing at all.

Mitch Zeller heads the FDA's tobacco office.

MITCH ZELLER: It would be inappropriate for me to prejudge any potential action that we could take other than to say we're in information-seeking mode. We want more evidence, more information as we ponder any potential action that we could take.

STEIN: For his part, Larry Brown thinks the FDA should keep its hands off his menthols.

BROWN: Freedom of speech, freedom to smoke whatever flavor of cigarettes you want to smoke - I don't think they should get involved at all.

STEIN: As the FDA weights its options, the government is sponsoring new research to try to find out whether menthol really makes it harder to quit. And the FDA is launching a big, new anti-smoking campaign aimed at kids that specifically warns against the dangers of smoking menthol cigarettes.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

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