FDA Panel Weighs-in on Menthol Cigarettes

April 21, 2011
107 Views

A federal panel advised the FDA last week that menthol cigarettes are more harmful to the public health than regular cigarettes. However, it did not recommend or endorse any actions the FDA should take to act on the advice.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=86lYG1V2-n4

 

A federal panel advised the FDA last week that menthol cigarettes are more harmful to the public health than regular cigarettes. However, it did not recommend or endorse any actions the FDA should take to act on the advice.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=86lYG1V2-n4

 

According to the panel, menthol cigarettes drive-up cigarette smoking rates among youth and African-Americans because its minty taste attracts people to try cigarettes and makes it harder for them to quit. In addition, its mild anesthetic properties mask the harsh taste of cigarettes. That sensation might otherwise deter some from the habit before they get hooked. The report also cites evidence that consumers believe (incorrectly) that menthol provides some health protection or medicinal benefit.

“Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States,” the panel’s report concludes.

The panel’s official name is the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. Its report will likely trigger a lengthy test of the FDA’s ability to promulgate and enforce restrictions on cigarettes, nicotine and menthol. The FDA will review the report and other information before deciding what to do. It has no obligation to do anything.

Reaction to the report was mixed. Some saw it as a necessary first step toward an outright ban on menthol. Others were disappointed that the advisory group shied away from recommending steps the FDA might take to deal with the problem it identified. 

As Pizaazz readers know, Lorillard Tobacco had a keen interest in the panel’s report. Fully 90% of the Greensboro, NC, company’s revenue is derived from its Newport brand, which is the market-leading menthol cigarette (35% the market). Lorillard’s stock jumped 10% the day the panel released its report, and it has remained high. 

READ
Bridging The Gap In Multi-Generational Medical Marketing

“This is a huge victory for Lorillard,” Michael Siegel said. The tobacco expert and BU professor added that the panel’s decision not to recommend any specific action, “swept the issue under the rug by giving the FDA an out.”

Menthol cigarette sales account for about 27% of the highly profitable $80 billion US cigarette market. More than 19 million people smoke menthols in the US. A disproportionate number of these people are black, low income and young. Specifically, 80% of African-American smokers and nearly half of all smokers between the ages of 12-17 light-up menthols. By contrast, 22% of whites select menthols.

For his part, panel chairman Jonathan Samet, insisted his group actually did make a recommendation, citing the following statement from the report:  “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”

“To me that speaks quite clearly to what our recommendation is,” Samet said in an interview. “The statement about removal is what the public health recommendation is, and I think how one achieves that outcome depends on the strategies available to the FDA under the law. I’ll be watching with interest what the FDA does next.”

How this will shake out
Sadly, the FDA is unlikely to seek an all-out ban on menthol. The move would prompt years of expensive, distracting litigation for the agency. Oh, and according to UBS industry analyst Nik Modi, state and federal governments rake-in nearly $43 billion per year in cigarette excise taxes…a good chunk of this revenue could be lost if menthol smokers began purchasing their favorite smokes on the black market. Look for the FDA to initiate several years-worth of additional studies, and for fun, check out which members of congress get campaign contributions from Lorillard and other cigarette companies.