RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And a new government panel run by the Food and Drug Administration meets for the first time today. It's a scientific advisory board which regulates tobacco. First up for the panel: minty flavored menthol cigarettes.

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: One of the FDA's first actions, shortly after Congress gave them the authority to regulate tobacco products, 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.

Mr. MATTHEW MYERS (President/CEO, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids): The products it banned had very few users and no sustained users, so it wasn't concerned about what would happen if you instantly withdrew them.

WILSON: On the other hand, millions of Americans buy menthol cigarettes, which make up more than a fourth of the industry's $70 billion in sales. In fact, a recent survey showed nearly half of teenagers light up a menthol when they start to smoke.

And it's not just teenagers. 75 percent of African-American smokers, compared to 25 percent of white smokers, prefer menthol.

Mr. MYERS: 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? 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.

WILSON: There are studies that show 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 Historical documents show that the African-American community was, in fact, targeted by the industry.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 if menthol should be treated differently from regular tobacco.

Over the next two days, there's a 180-page list of studies committee members will have a chance to discuss. They'll find there's very little consensus.

Dr. ANDREW HYLAND (CEO, Roswell Park Cancer Institute): It's a very subtle issue.

WILSON: Andrew Hyland of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, followed 13,000 smokers for five years, to see if menthol made cigarettes more addictive, for example. He found no difference between menthol and regular cigarettes.

Dr. HYLAND: The products themselves are engineered to be addictive and to suck money out of their consumers' pockets, basically.

WILSON: The menthol, Hyland concluded, was just a marketing tool.

Dr. HYLAND: Does it have an extra addictive effect? Perhaps it does. But the answer to that question is really fundamentally not that important relative to the broader issue of, you know, why is menthol in these products to begin with? It's no different than, you know, putting cinnamon flavor in products to make them more attractive to would-be smokers.

WILSON: 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 Company 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 menthol, Parliaments and Virginia Slims - says any decision about menthols 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.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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