July 24, 2013 in Business, Health

Menthol cigarettes mask health risks, FDA study finds

Michael Felberbaum Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Helen Heinlo smokes outside of a coffee shop in Belmont, Calif., in 2007. A new federal study suggests menthol cigarettes are likely more risky to smokers’ health.
(Full-size photo)

RICHMOND, Va. – A Food and Drug Administration review concludes that menthol cigarettes likely pose a greater public health risk than regular cigarettes but does not make a recommendation on whether to limit or ban the minty smokes – one of the few growth sectors of the shrinking cigarette business.

The federal agency released the independent review on Tuesday and is seeking input from the health community, the tobacco industry and others on possible restrictions on the mint-flavored cigarettes.

The FDA evaluation concluded that there is little evidence to suggest that menthol cigarettes are more or less toxic or contribute to more disease risk to smokers than regular cigarettes. However, there is adequate data to suggest that menthol use is likely associated with increased smoking initiation by younger people and that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting, the review said.

There’s also evidence indicating that menthol’s cooling properties can reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke and that menthol cigarettes are marketed as a smoother alternative, the review said.

“Menthol cigarettes raise critical public health questions,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

Zeller said there’s “no holdup” on the FDA proposing restrictions on menthol but that “some important questions” need to be answered. The agency is commissioning further research.

A 2011 FDA advisory panel report, which was mandated under the 2009 law giving the agency the authority to regulate tobacco, made many of the same findings, and said that removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health and highlighted greater use among minorities, teenagers and low-income people. Panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. The agency doesn’t have to follow its recommendations, but often does.

Meanwhile, a tobacco industry report to the FDA acknowledged that all cigarettes are hazardous but said there’s no scientific basis for regulating menthols differently. The industry also has raised concerns that menthol restrictions would lead to a black market.

Menthol cigarettes are one of the few growth areas in a shrinking cigarette market. The percentage of U.S. cigarette smokers using menthol brands grew from 33.9 percent in 2008 to 37.5 percent in 2011, according to a study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, with more significant growth among younger smokers.

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