Are menthol cigarettes — which account for one-quarter of U.S. cigarette sales — more addictive than other smokes? That's a top question facing the FDA's new advisory committee on tobacco regulation, which is meeting for the first time Tuesday. It's tasked with determining whether menthols should be treated differently from regular tobacco.
After Congress shifted the authority to regulate tobacco products to the Food and Drug Administration, one of its first actions was to ban clove, cinnamon and other candy-flavored cigarettes. It was a small market, and the cigarettes were sold primarily to young people.
Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says it was easy for the FDA to ban the candy-flavored tobacco.
"The products it banned had very few users and no sustained users," he says, "so it wasn't concerned about what would happen if you instantly withdrew them."
On the other hand, millions of Americans buy menthol cigarettes, which make up more than one-fourth of the industry's $70 billion in sales.
In fact, a recent survey showed that nearly half of teenagers light up a menthol when they start to smoke. And it's not just teenagers: 75 percent of black smokers, compared with 25 percent of white smokers, prefer menthol.
"What we aren't certain of: Is it because menthol makes it easier to smoke because it coats your throat, or is there some other reason?" Myers says. "The advantage to FDA looking at this is that they will examine the science in its totality and give us an answer to that question once and for all."
There are studies that show that African-Americans tend to smoke fewer cigarettes yet suffer more smoking-related health problems, and have greater difficulty in quitting. Historical documents show that the African-American community was in fact targeted by the industry.
Congress ordered the new Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to study marketing, addiction and health effects to determine whether menthol should be treated differently from regular tobacco. There's a 180-page list of studies that committee members will have a chance to discuss over the next two days. They'll find there is very little consensus.
"It's a very subtle issue," says Andrew Hyland of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. He followed 13,000 smokers for five years to see whether menthol made cigarettes more addictive, for example. He found no difference between menthol and regular cigarettes.
"The products themselves are engineered to be addictive and to suck money out of their consumers' pockets, basically," Hyland says. The menthol, he concluded, was just a marketing tool.
"Does it have an extra addictive effect? Perhaps it does, but the answer to that question is fundamentally not that important relative to the broader issue of why is menthol in these products to begin with?" Hyland says. "It's no different than putting cinnamon flavor in products to make them more attractive to would-be smokers."
Oddly enough, Hyland's study is cited by the tobacco industry because he found that regular and menthol smokers quit at about the same rate.
Lorillard Tobacco Co. makes Newport, which has the largest share of the market. Lorillard said in a written statement that menthol has been used for decades in food, drink, cosmetics and other products. And a spokesman for Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro menthols, Parliaments and Virginia Slims, says any decision about menthol should be science-based.
This week's meeting is just a start. This summer, the advisory committee will review industry documents to see what's in menthol cigarettes, something no one outside the industry has had complete access to before now.