The Food and Drug Administration may have banned candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes Tuesday, but some public health experts still see a big hole in their efforts to keep teens from starting to smoke.
That’s because menthol, the top-selling flavor of cigarette and one increasingly popular with teen smokers, remains on the market.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed in June, authorized the FDA to ban all flavors of cigarettes except menthol.
The act required the FDA to create a Tobacco Products Advisory Committee, which will submit reports on such questions as “the impact of the use of menthol in cigarettes on the public health.”
Although teen smoking overall has declined, the proportion who smoke menthol cigarettes is rising — 17.5% from 2000 to 2002, according to the American Legacy Foundation, created as a result of the 1998 settlement between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry. About 44% of smokers ages 12 to 17 use menthol cigarettes, the foundation says.
“It makes no sense” to keep menthol cigarettes on the market, says Legacy CEO Cheryl Healton.
A 2002 study found 60% of middle school smokers smoked menthol, says scientist James Hersey with RTI International, an independent research institute in Washington, D.C. “I think menthol is easier to smoke, so kids will often start with menthol.”
And Hersey’s research suggests young menthol smokers are more likely to be addicted to nicotine than their peers who smoke non-menthol cigarettes. But studies of whether menthol smokers find it more difficult to quit than non-menthol smokers have had mixed results.
In a study of more than 4,000 middle and high school students, University of Georgia researchers Jerome Legge and Jessica Muilenburg found menthol smokers smoked more cigarettes than non-menthol smokers.
And among menthol smokers, blacks smoked more than whites, they reported last year. In the USA, about 80% of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, compared with only about a quarter of white smokers.
“Any proposed legislation should consider the special problems of menthol and its relationship to high cigarette consumption, especially for African-American adolescents,” Legge and Muilenburg concluded.
But, Legge said last week, a ban on menthol cigarettes could create an illegal market for them.
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