FDA Panel Says Menthol Cigarettes Are Harmful, Ban Still Unlikely

On Friday a federal advisory panel found that "removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States" — but don't expect the government to do anything about it.

The Chicago Tribune reports that after a year-long study, it was determined that adding menthol to cigarettes makes it easier for children to start smoking and harder for adults to quit. But, the panel just recommended further study, which probably means the Food and Drug Administration won't issue a ban. In fact, the tobacco companies' stock prices rose after the report was released.

Though smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., politicians have little interest in pushing a ban on menthols right now. The House would probably oppose any bill cracking down on cigarettes, since most Republicans voted against giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco in 2009. Plus, President Obama has enough on his plate without a long battle with the tobacco industry.

Lawmakers threatened to ban menthols in 2009, but eventually they were given a special exemption and Congress only outlawed candy, fruit, spices, and other flavorings in cigarettes. All flavorings make cigarettes more appealing to children, but since 80% of black smokers prefer menthols, few lawmakers were willing to push a menthol ban. (I know from personal experience that clove smokers weren't too happy about their brand being pulled from the market, but Congress is less concerned about alienating a handful of angsty theater kids.)

Menthols make up nearly one-third of the cigarette market, and tobacco companies claim a ban would just fuel organized crime by create a black market for the cigarettes (and a huge loss in profits for the industry, though they didn't mention that part). There's also concern in the industry that declaring menthols illegal could pave the way for a restriction on the nicotine content in all cigarettes.

Basically, the panel just confirmed what we already knew: Cigarettes will kill you, and menthol flavoring only makes them more enticing. Lawmakers didn't act on this information in the past, and it's unlikely that they'll be making a significant attack on Big Tobacco anytime soon.

FDA Panel Weighs Menthol Cigarette Ban [Chicago Tribune]