- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

The tobacco industry said in a report submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that menthol cigarettes pose no higher risks than other cigarettes, arguing against a potential ban on the product that could be recommended as early as Friday.

But anti-tobacco advocates maintain that menthol cigarettes need to be banned, arguing that they form a “gateway” to tobacco use and are marketed disproportionately toward children and blacks.

“When you have a product that kills one out of three of long-term users, education — which is highly important — is not sufficient,” said Ellen Vargyas of the American Legacy Foundation. “The protection that is in the law is incredibly important in protecting Americans, and their health and lives.”

The FDA took control of regulating tobacco in 2009 and since then has formed the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC), a panel for tobacco issues.

A recent focus of TPSAC has been on the implications of menthol cigarettes, which are known for a cooling sensation that reduces the harshness of tobacco smoke on the throat. Some studies suggest that these minty cigarettes are a prime starter product for underage smokers and also decrease the inclination to quit smoking.

TPSAC, which scheduled meetings on Thursday and Friday to discuss this issue, said that it would discuss its final recommendations on the issue Friday.

Ms. Vargyas, who is the general counsel of the foundation which focuses on ending smoking among youth and minorities, cited studies indicating that more than 400,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related disease. She was skeptical of what she called “scare tactics” by the tobacco industry, which claims a ban on menthol would create a black market for menthol sales.

“I’m sure there are going to be some illegal-trade cigarettes,” she acknowledged, but added that recent laws such as the PACT Act should make difficult the illegal shipping of cigarettes.

Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences at Boston University, said that if he were designing a strategy to reduce U.S. tobacco use, he would not include the banning of menthol cigarettes, but understood the suggestion to ban the menthol flavoring, since all other flavors — such as fruit and candy flavors — have already been banned from the market.

“Congress has clearly indicated that it believes that the tobacco industry should not put flavorings in their products if those flavorings might appeal to youth,” said Mr. Siegel. “Based on that very clear sentiment, I cannot see how policymakers could argue that menthol should not be banned. If the flavorings which almost no one smokes are banned, then how can we not ban the one flavoring which actually does entice kids to smoke?”

On the other hand, Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, said that the effort to ban menthol cigarettes is “terribly misguided,” and patronizes the black community.

He said he was especially concerned about a black market expanding out of the menthol ban, noting there already is an “underground, illegal black market that occurs right now with a legal product.”

“I am not a smoker, I have never smoked menthol or nonmenthol,” he said, calling it a “nasty habit” and saying he would favor government taxing of all cigarettes — menthol and nonmenthol — to fund anti-smoking education.

But Mr. Innis also said that adults should be permitted to make their own choices and deal with the consequences, and said the black community should not be singled out as needing special protections.

“I am not in favor of some governmental body coming in and saying, ‘Black people, we’re going to protect you from yourselves, because you don’t know any better,’” he said.