Cigarettes kill, but menthol isn't the culprit. Nevertheless the Food and Drug Administration is moving toward regulating, maybe even banning, menthol in cigarettes, while leaving cigarettes without the minty, cool additive available for public consumption. That makes no sense.
OK, it makes a little sense. Just not enough to justify banning menthol smokes.
More than 440,000 people in the United States die every year due to tobacco use, according to the FDA, which nailed tobacco as the nation's leading cause of preventable death and disease. But the agency found no evidence that menthol cigarettes are more toxic than non-menthol brands, or pose a heightened risk of disease for smokers.
Young people who pick up the habit, however, are more likely to begin with menthol smokes. And menthol smokers are less likely to successfully quit, suggesting the additive may be associated with more powerful addiction. Those are the recently released conclusions of an FDA survey of available research, which mirror the findings of an FDA advisory committee that said in 2011 that removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health.
A ban would also be consistent with a 2009 ban on fruit-, herb- and spice-flavored cigarettes -- varieties attractive to young smokers and a transparent attempt to hook new customers. The FDA was right to ban those, just as it should also ban cigars with kid-magnet flavors like chocolate and blueberry.
But menthol cigarettes are a large, established segment of the market. One in four cigarettes sold in this country is mentholated. About four in five African-American smokers choose them, and women, Hispanics and young people favor them more often than do other smokers.
Banning a product popular with so many consumers would spawn a lucrative criminal black market. And in our litigious society, it could invite lawsuits by African-American smokers challenging a decision to ban a product they overwhelmingly favor, while leaving the equally lethal, non-menthol cigarettes other smokers prefer on the market.
The FDA announced last month that it will fund three new, menthol-related studies to evaluate factors such as whether genetic differences in taste perceptions explain why certain racial and ethnic populations are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes.
Fortunately, this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The FDA could and should stop short of a ban. The agency is seeking public comment for another month to inform its eventual rule-making decision on menthol cigarettes. It already regulates menthol in medical products as a drug, and imposes restrictions on allowable doses and use. The FDA should explore whether restricting the amount of menthol in cigarettes would effectively curtail their attraction for new smokers and make them easier to quit.
Smoking is often a death sentence. It causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, and lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis. That's a stunning health risk for the 44 million Americans who smoke cigarettes. Eventually the nation will have to decide whether to continue allowing the legal sale of a product that causes so much sickness and death. Until it does, the FDA shouldn't take the quarter-step of banning cigarettes with menthol.