FDA to independently review menthol cigarettes

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP)—The Food and Drug Administration is conducting an independent review of research on the public health impact of menthol cigarettes—which are mint flavored and one of the few growth sectors of the shrinking cigarette business. The process is expected to be completed in the fall of 2011.

The review comes after the FDA in March received a report from the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee on the minty smokes Panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. The agency doesn’t have to follow its recommendations, but often does.

The report, which was mandated under the 2009 law giving the agency the authority to regulate tobacco, said removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health because the flavoring has led to an increase in smokers—particularly among teens, African Americans, and those with low incomes.

It also said that they make it harder for them to quit. The report, however, said menthol smokers are not likely to be at a higher risk of disease or exposed to a greater number of toxins.

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 tobacco company, is based in Greensboro, N.C.

“We continue to strongly believe that an objective, thorough and rigorous scientific review will lead the agency to conclude that menthol cigarettes do not present any more harm than non-menthol ciga­rettes,” Gregg Perry, a spokesman for Lorillard, said in a statement on Monday.

Menthol cigarettes are one of the few growth areas in a shrinking cigarette market. The percentage of cigarette smokers using menthol brands grew from 31 percent in 2004 to 33.9 percent in 2008, according to a study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, with more significant growth among younger smokers.

There’s evidence consumers perceive that menthol cigarettes offer some health protection or medicinal benefit that non-menthol cigarettes don’t, according to the report. It also says menthols are disproportionately marketed to African-Americans and younger smokers. Meanwhile, a tobacco industry report to the FDA acknowledges that all cigarettes are hazardous but says there’s no scientific basis for regulating menthols differently.

In response to the FDA’s latest move, Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the advisory panel did a thorough and expert job reviewing the science and the March report “deserves great weight.”

“Our hope is that FDA will move forward quickly to determine what action follows from those scientific conclusions,” Myers said.

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