Despite evidence that menthol cigarettes are a significant factor in the rise of smoking among adolescents, a federal advisory panel on Friday stopped short of recommending a ban on the cigarettes.
Instead, it urged further study of the issue, which suggested that the Food and Drug Administration would ultimately pursue more modest action, such as marketing restrictions aimed at reducing access for the young.
The panel's long-awaited report on menthol cigarettes was met with a collective shrug from several tobacco companies, whose potent political and legal power could delay any new restrictions for years. Tobacco company stock prices rose after the committee released its report.
"The market sees little in the FDA panel findings to suggest that an outright ban is likely," said R.J. Hottovy, director of consumer research for Morningstar Inc., an investment research firm.
The advisory panel laid out a detailed critique of the special dangers posed by menthols, concluding that "removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States."
Still, it declined to take the most stringent step of recommending that the cigarettes be removed from the markets, leaving that decision to the Food and Drug Administration, which has the final say on what, if any, action is taken.
Research has found that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, claiming 443,000 lives annually and costing $100 billion for medical care and another $100 billion in lost productivity.
But there is potentially strong congressional opposition to a sweeping new regulatory push by the government, especially in the GOP-controlled House, where a majority of Republicans voted against the 2009 legislation granting the FDA authority to regulate tobacco, said Michael Siegel, a Boston University expert on the public health consequences of smoking.
And President Obama may be reluctant to take on another controversial issue at a time when he is fighting to defend his signature healthcare overhaul and engaged in difficult negotiations over the federal deficit and other issues.
"The last thing he needs, politically, is government telling tobacco companies what to put into cigarettes," Siegel said.
In crafting the 2009 tobacco law, Congress called for a ban on candy, fruit, spices and other flavorings in cigarettes because of their potential allure for young smokers. Menthol flavoring was not banned because declaring nearly one-third of the cigarette market illegal was thought to be too disruptive and politically unpalatable.
Menthol cigarettes also have an awkward racial dimension: They are preferred by 80% of black smokers, and spokesmen for several black civic groups have stepped forward to assert that a ban would unfairly target black consumers.
A ban also is opposed by convenience store operators, who rely on menthol cigarettes for approximately 4% of their sales, according to the National Assn. of Convenience Stores.
The tobacco companies are expected to pull out all the stops to block or delay FDA action.
A ban on menthol could foreshadow an effort to restrict cigarettes' content of nicotine — the addictive component of tobacco — "and that's what the industry is really afraid of," according to Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, who has testified as an expert witness in litigation against tobacco firms.
The validity of the FDA panel's conclusions already have been challenged in a suit filed by tobacco companies Lorillard Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. It charges that three members of the advisory panel have conflicts of interest that taint the fairness of their deliberations.
Lorillard, Reynolds and Altria Group's Philip Morris USA all say that banning menthol would yield no public health benefit and create a black market that would fuel organized crime.
Anti-smoking groups aren't necessarily clamoring for a ban, either.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said the FDA should impose changes in marketing or formulation to curb youth smoking and make it easier for African Americans to quit smoking.
But he added: "That may be a ban or it may be something different."