Menthol and the FDA debate – what’s the story?

As it currently stands menthol cigarettes will be exempted as a flavor additive in proposed FDA regulation.

If you are a supporter of menthol cigarettes, and about 28% of the US smoking population is; this is good news.

If you are against menthol cigarettes or smoking in general – this is not good news. But what’s the big deal?

Demographics and harm reduction  – that’s the big deal.

Let’s start by clarifying a couple of points. It is a food-safe natural product (although there are synthetic menthols too) which is pervasive – toothpaste and candy are two examples. Menthol is not inherently harmful and there is no evidence that it creates any problems when added to cigarettes. Generally quite the contrary – 28% of US smokers really like it and a disproportionate percentage of them are African Americans.

This is the demographic part where things become a little more sensitive. There is some epidemiological evidence that African American smokers appear to have higher incidences of health risks. Is it the menthol many are asking?

The truth is most menthol cigarettes are higher in tar than their peers – and this is most likely the cause – not the menthol.

Interestingly hardly anybody is bringing this up. It would be relatively easy to reduce the tar in menthol products to match non-menthol brands.

A step program to reduce tar levels over time with menthol products would allow smokers to migrate to a lower tar product without noticing a step change. Admittedly a small benefit – but an important benefit nontheless.


#1 Adrian on 07.10.08 at 12:15 PM

Chris – I think you make a good point. My worry is that like so many other topics in tobacco control, menthol risks becoming a political ’cause celebre’. I am not aware of any scientific evidence that menthol per se makes more smoking more hazardous than it already is. If it does it is probably more akin to the risk of driving at 201mph than 200mph. Yet I am also seeing allegations that menthol makes it more difficult to quit -again, where is the evidence. Irrespective of who smokes menthol cigarettes, and I agree that this is a sensitive issue, banning menthol entirely would likely compromise the development of hopefully less hazardous lower exposure products as menthol can substitute for the lack of flavour that would doubtless occur by diminishing the concentration of certain other smoke components that are likely more hazadous. In the rush to get on the anti-menthol bandwagon this aspect seems to have been completely overlooked.

#2 OTP Kid on 07.14.08 at 1:58 PM

Has anyone seen Altira objecting to the potential banning of menthol? As we know, they are the leading FDA supporter. It seems to me that no one would lose any sleep over in Richmond if menthol was banned. Do you think they’d trade losing Marlboro Menthol ( a product they are spending a ton of money against to promote and sell) in exhange for making Newport, Salem, and Kool extinct. You know the last time I saw an Urban cowboy was Travolta in the movie of the same name!

What say you Swammy TAZ???

#3 Bill Godshall on 07.14.08 at 4:30 PM

There is no empirical evidence that menthol cigarettes are more or less hazardous than other cigarettes, and reducing tar yields (as measured by the inaccurate and deceptive FTC method) wouldn’t reduce the risks.

The recent criticism of the Philip Morris/CTFK negotiated FDA legislation’s exemption of menthol (as a cigarette additive) occurred because the legislation banned other cigarette flavoring additives, which some black health advocates perceive as racially discriminatory (because most black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes).

Regardless, the last thing Henry Waxman wants is black House Democratics vocally opposing the legislation over the issue of menthol, which may be a reason why the full House hasn’t considered HR 1108 yet.

In the Senate, Mike Enzi filed an amendment last year to S. 625 that would ban menthol as a cigarette additive, citing the hypocrisy of the legislation’s exemption for menthol (while banning other cigarette flavoring additives).

#4 TAZ on 07.27.08 at 12:35 PM

OTP Kid,

You have made a very good point. Has anyone seen a response from Philip Morris?

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