Menthol controversy keeps smoldering

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A potential ban on menthol cigarettes got some momentum, based upon three studies published in the latest edition of The American Journal of Public Health. Together, these studies were commissioned by Legacy and supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Public Health Association, and the Center for American Progress. They claim that a menthol ban could prevent up to 600,000 premature smoking-related deaths by 2050, a third of which would stem from the African American community alone. The articles also posit — based on surveys — that a majority of Americans (56 percent), including 76 percent of African Americans, support a menthol ban. One of the studies found that smoking cessation, especially among African Americans, who have the highest menthol smoking rate, is particularly difficult for menthol smokers.

"With the momentum of this new research and public support for a ban on menthol, now is the time for the FDA to finally act on this important issue. Tobacco is not an equal-opportunity killer, and the link between menthol smoking and African Americans cannot be overemphasized, nor can it be overlooked," said a senior author on all four studies, Dr. David Abrams, executive director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Legacy.

But as ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross points out, the 800-pound gorilla that these studies fail to acknowledge is the potential for a large black market in smuggled, illicit menthol cigarettes to form as result of such a ban. In addition, as many Dispatch readers are already aware, our publication on menthol cigarettes, presented to the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) by our own Dr. Ross last November — and reflected in the TPSAC’s own report — showed that menthol cigarettes do not pose any greater health threat than unflavored varieties.

Despite proponents’ claims that a ban on mentholated cigarettes would encourage a significant population of smokers to quit, Dr. Ross is skeptical. “I doubt that such a large fraction of menthol smokers will actually quit if menthol is banned," he says. "It’s easy to say so, but so hard to do. I adhere to what I’ve been saying all along: the large majority of smokers will keep smoking, either illicit menthols or regulars. Sure, some will quit, but more minors will find smuggled menthols easy to get without IDs. Even if a ban reduces the number of adults who continue to smoke, I believe that these potential public health benefits would be outweighed by the unintended consequence of a black market.”

ACSH’s Cheryl Martin, however, supports a menthol ban. “It would be consistent with the current ban of the other flavors, which was supposedly implemented to deter youth smoking. On this premise alone it makes no sense to exclude menthol, which has command of a large youth market. Further, there is already a large black market for cigarettes. In my neighborhood on any given day you can find plenty of people selling mentholated ‘loosies’ and packs. Excluding menthol cigarettes from the flavor ban sends the message that they are an exception simply because there is a lot of money at stake, both for tobacco companies and all levels of government. They are a known youth gateway to a lifetime of smoking, and this is a serious public health issue that should be addressed with a menthol ban.”