WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration, moving closer to a decision on whether to ban menthol in cigarettes, released a scientific review Tuesday that found the mint flavoring made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.
The agency also solicited public comment on “potential regulation” of those products.
These steps pleased smoking opponents, who have been calling for FDA action since 2009, when Congress exempted menthol from a ban on flavors in cigarettes unless the agency decided its use endangered public health. Menthol cigarettes account for about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States and are particularly popular among African-American smokers, about 4 out of 5 of whom report smoking them, according to federal surveys.
Still, the action was only an intermediate step in what advocates say has been a prolonged regulatory process and comes as menthol smoking rates for young adults have been increasing. Many had expected the agency to act on menthol in 2011 after a congressionally mandated committee of outside experts, convened by the FDA, found that menthol had a negative effect on public health. The FDA’s findings Tuesday echoed those conclusions, leaving smoking opponents frustrated the agency had not clearly signaled an intent to ban menthol.
“This is either a way to take the heat off or the beginning of a meaningful process,” said Matthew Myers, president of the advocacy group, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “That’s the book the jury is still out on.”
Mitchell Zeller, new head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said the steps the agency took showed it is moving forward as fast as it can, but he emphasized that they did not foreshadow a ban. The public comment period will be open for 60 days.
“The FDA is a regulatory agency,” he said on a conference call. “As a regulatory agency we can only go as far as the regulatory science will take us.” He added: “The bottom line is, we need more information. We also need input from the public.”
Lorillard Inc., the biggest manufacturer of menthol cigarettes in the United States, said in a statement that “the best available science demonstrates that menthol cigarettes have the same health effects as nonmenthol cigarettes and should be treated no differently.”
Indeed, the FDA’s review found that menthol cigarettes did not increase the risk of disease compared with smoking cigarettes not flavored with menthol. However, the agency found that the mint flavoring made people more likely to start smoking and led to greater dependence on nicotine and decreased rates of quitting.
Menthol flavoring makes an otherwise harsh cigarette more palatable for young people who are first-time smokers, and so hooks more of them, antismoking advocates say. They say young blacks are particularly vulnerable. More than three-quarters of black adolescent and young adult smokers use Newports, a menthol cigarette produced by Lorillard, according to a 2004 study on menthol.
And while smoking rates have been declining across the nation, rates for menthol cigarettes have climbed to 16 percent in 2010 from 13 percent in 2004 among 18- to 25-year-olds, according to a 2011 federal report.