- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2011

RICHMOND, VA. (AP) - A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel says the removal of menthol cigarettes from the U.S. market would benefit public health.

The agency’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee on Friday said the minty smokes hurt public health and offer no benefits. It was unclear whether the panel is recommending an outright ban of the cigarettes that are a key area for growth in the shrinking cigarette market.

Many panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. The agency doesn’t have to follow their recommendations but usually does. There is no timeline for the FDA to take action.

While the panel says menthol smokers are not likely to be at a higher risk of disease or exposed to a greater number of toxins, menthol cigarettes make it more likely for certain groups like youth and African Americans to experiment with smoking and make it harder for them to quit. It also said menthol cigarettes increase the prevalence of smoking.

The panel also said that there are gaps in understanding of menthol cigarettes that should be addressed with further research.

A menthol ban or other restrictions on the flavored cigarettes would fall heavily on Lorillard Inc., whose Newport brand is the top-selling menthol cigarette in the U.S., with roughly 35 percent of the market. Lorillard, the country’s third-largest and its oldest continuously operating tobacco company, is based in Greensboro, N.C.

Lorillard did not provide immediate comment.

Draft chapters of the FDA panel’s report also say menthol cigarettes may not be more risky, but their use is highest among minorities, teenagers and low-income people. There’s evidence consumers perceive that menthol cigarettes offer some form of health protection or medicinal benefit that non-menthol cigarettes don’t, according to the drafts. That report says menthols are disproportionately marketed to African Americans and younger smokers.

The report due to the FDA next Wednesday was mandated under the 2009 law giving the agency the authority to regulate tobacco. The FDA can’t ban nicotine or tobacco, but it can limit what goes into tobacco products, require the ingredients be publicized and limit marketing, especially to young people.

Meanwhile, a tobacco industry report to the FDA acknowledges that “all cigarettes are hazardous to health” but says there’s no scientific basis for regulating menthols differently. The industry report concludes that menthol cigarettes don’t make it easier for people to start smoking or harder for them to quit or raise their risk of disease. It also asserts that a ban on menthol would lead to more contraband smokes.

Lorillard and Reynolds American Inc., which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., and owns the nation’s second-largest tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Camel and Pall Mall brand cigarettes, have asked a federal court to stop the FDA from relying on the advisory panel’s recommendations. The tobacco companies claim members of the FDA panel have financial conflicts of interest and are biased.

Altria Group Inc., the owner of nation’s biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, plans to submit separate menthol findings and recommendations to the FDA. Altria, based in Richmond, Va., was the only major U.S. tobacco company to support FDA regulation.

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