RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Menthol-flavored cigarettes are going under the microscope of a new government panel, which will recommend how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should regulate them.
Smokes with the minty flavoring are a key area for growth for tobacco companies in a shrinking cigarette market, so the industry will keep a close eye on the committee's work.
The FDA won the authority in June to regulate tobacco, including banning certain products, limiting nicotine and blocking labels such "low tar" and "light" that could wrongly imply certain products are less harmful. The agency can't ban nicotine or tobacco entirely.
Most industry observers think a menthol ban is unlikely. A ban on cigarettes with flavors such as clove, chocolate or fruit took effect in September, because they are believed to appeal to youth. The law stopped short of banning the more-popular menthol but directed the FDA to examine its effects.
The FDA has the power to ban the flavoring or order a reduction of menthol levels, bigger or more descriptive warning labels or higher mandated prices for menthol cigarettes. The agency doesn't have to follow its scientific panel's recommendation, but it often does.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the overriding goal must be reducing the number of people who die from tobacco use.
"This is the first time that all of the science will be brought together looking at whether menthol increases the number of users, makes it hard to quit, has a disproportionate harmful effect on certain people, and, if the answer to any of those questions is yes, what is the best thing to do about menthol to reduce the number of people who are harmed?" Myers said.
The committee of 12, including three nonvoting members representing the tobacco industry, is to advise FDA on a range of issues. Committee members also are later tasked with studying dissolvable tobacco products as well as product changes and standards. It's chaired by Dr. Jonathan Samet, director of the University of Southern California's Institute for Global Health and former director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control at Johns Hopkins University.
The relative strength of the menthol market has cigarette makers introducing new menthol products and innovations.
The two largest cigarette makers — No. 1 Philip Morris USA, owned by Richmond, Va.'s Altria Group Inc., and No. 2 Reynolds American Inc., based in Winston-Salem, N.C. — are ramping up efforts to grab some of the menthol market away from Greensboro, N.C.-based Lorillard Inc., the nation's third-largest cigarette company. Lorillard holds about 35 percent of the U.S menthol market with its top-selling Newport brand.
The share of smokers using menthol cigarettes increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 33.9 percent in 2008, with more pronounced increases among young smokers, according to a study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in November.
It also showed that among black smokers, 82.6 percent used menthol cigarettes, compared with 32.3 percent for Hispanic smokers and 23.8 percent for white smokers.
"Tobacco researchers still do not see conclusive evidence in existing literature that would warrant a ban of menthol and we think the tax, job and illicit trade implications would be too serious for the FDA to take this drastic step," Credit Suisse analyst Thilo Wrede wrote in a note to investors.
Those in the industry agree a ban is improbable.
"The weight of the scientific evidence does not support a conclusion that menthol cigarettes convert greater health risk than non-menthol cigarettes," Lorillard CEO Martin Orlowsky said in a conference call last month. Orlowsky also warned that a ban could lead to a black market.
Studies vary on menthol's health impacts and whether it plays a large role in enticing people to start smoking, said Dr. David Burns of the University of California- San Diego, scientific editor of several surgeon general reports on tobacco.
"There's not a lot of compelling evidence that menthol makes a huge problem relative to the magnitude of the problem of tobacco," Burns said.