A panel advising the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that menthol cigarettes are not worse for smokers’ health than regular cigarettes — but they may be more addictive, Bloomberg reported Feb. 28.
To reach its conclusions — which the FDA does not have to act upon — the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee looked at marketing data from the three largest U.S. tobacco companies, Altria (a unit of Philip Morris USA), Reynolds American, and Lorillard, as well as decades of research.
The advisory panel posted two chapters from its draft report on the FDA website in advance of a March 23 deadline. The report is required as part of the 2009 law that granted the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco and prohibited all cigarette flavorings except menthol. If the FDA rules that menthol presents an elevated health risk, it could ban it as a tobacco flavoring.
With regard to whether menthol cigarettes pose a greater health risk to smokers than regular cigarettes, the panel concluded, “The evidence is insufficient,” in a draft chapter titled, “Effects Of Menthol on the Disease Risks of Smoking” (PDF).
However, in a draft chapter titled, “The Physiological Effects of Menthol Cigarettes” (PDF), the panelists said it was “biologically plausible” for menthol cigarettes to be more addictive than regular cigarettes.
“Menthol provides an unmistakable sensory experience — the minty taste, cooling sensation and throat irritation or impact,” they wrote. “The taste and odor are pleasurable for menthol cigarette smokers and may reinforce smoking behavior.”
In the first chapter of its report, the panel said that menthol could also present other risks to public health besides disease.
“The availability of menthol cigarettes could have no significant effect on risk for disease outcomes, yet have a significant effect on increasing initiation or reducing the success of cessation,” panelists wrote. “The resultant increase in the prevalence of smoking would represent a negative public health impact.”
Two companies, Lorillard and Reynolds, have sued the FDA to prevent it from “receiving or relying on” the panel’s conclusions, though the panel’s report is non-binding. According to Bloomberg, the companies alleged that three of the panel’s eight members had conflicts of interest because they have “served as paid witnesses in lawsuits against the tobacco industry and take money from drug companies that make smoking-cessation aids.”
Menthol cigarettes make up 30 percent of the $85 billion U.S. tobacco market, with Lorillard’s Newport brand leading Marlboro Menthol, Camel Menthol, Kool, and Salem.