Menthol cigarettes are no riskier than regular cigarettes and shouldn't be regulated any differently, the tobacco industry told a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel Thursday.
The FDA is weighing tighter restrictions of menthol cigarettes, a key area for growth in the shrinking cigarette market. Most industry experts say a ban on the flavoring is unlikely.
The agency's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is finalizing a report on the public health impacts of the minty smokes. It could suggest tightening restrictions on them by limiting menthol levels or requiring bigger or more descriptive warning labels or higher prices. Or the panel could recommend further study.
It is scheduled to discuss its recommendations Friday and give them to the FDA on March 23.
A summary of the tobacco industry report that the FDA panel received Thursday acknowledges that "all cigarettes are hazardous to health" but says there's no scientific basis for regulating menthols differently.
The industry report concludes that menthol cigarettes don't make it easier for people to start smoking or harder for them to quit or raise their risk of disease. It also asserts that a ban on menthol would lead to more contraband smokes.
Lorillard Inc.'s principal scientist, J. Daniel Heck, a non-voting tobacco industry representative on the advisory panel, presented the report.
A menthol ban or other restrictions on the flavored cigarettes would fall heavily on Lorillard Inc., whose Newport brand is the top-selling menthol cigarette in the U.S., with roughly 35 percent of the market. Lorillard, the country's third-largest and its oldest continuously operating tobacco company, is based in Greensboro, N.C.
Draft chapters of the FDA panel's report say menthol cigarettes may not be more risky, but their use is highest among minorities, teenagers and low-income people. There's evidence consumers perceive that menthol cigarettes offer some form of health protection or medicinal benefit that non-menthol cigarettes don't, according to the drafts. That report says menthols are disproportionately marketed to African Americans and younger smokers.
The FDA won the authority to regulate tobacco in June 2009. It can't ban nicotine or tobacco, but it can limit what goes into tobacco products, require the ingredients be publicized and limit marketing, especially to young people.
Many panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. It doesn't have to follow their recommendations but usually does.
The panel also heard Thursday from trade groups concerned, like the tobacco industry, that banning menthol cigarettes could create a large illegal marketplace.
"The intertwined issues of banning menthol cigarettes and illicit markets are ones of tremendous importance to African Americans," said Harry Alford, head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. "Menthol simply is a taste preference preferred by African Americans and it should not be singled out for a ban."
Chairman 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, said the panel's report will address unintended consequences of regulation.
"If menthol cigarettes have the same health effects as non-menthol cigarettes, how can the federal government justify a ban?" asked Scott Ramminger, president and CEO of the American Wholesale Marketers Association, a trade group of distributors whose members represent more than $85 billion in U.S. sales.
Lorillard and Reynolds American Inc., which is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., and owns the nation's second-largest tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Camel and Pall Mall brand cigarettes, have asked a federal court to stop the FDA from relying on the advisory panel's recommendations. The tobacco companies claim members of the FDA panel have financial conflicts of interest and are biased.
Altria Group Inc., the owner of nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, which makes top-selling Marlboro brand cigarettes, plans to submit separate menthol findings and recommendations to the FDA. Altria, based in Richmond, Va., was the only major U.S. tobacco company to support FDA regulation.