Evidence does not support menthol restrictions, Altria says

The scientific evidence does not justify a ban or restrictions on menthol flavoring in cigarettes, a representative for cigarette maker Philip Morris USA told a government advisory panel Wednesday.

“The weight of the scientific evidence indicates that menthol does not change the inherent health risk of smoking,” said Jane Lewis,menthol cigarettes senior vice president for tobacco regulatory and health sciences at Altria Client Services Inc., which provides support functions for Henrico County-based Altria Group Inc. and its subsidiaries, including top U.S. cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, which sells several menthol cigarette brands.

Lewis spoke at a meeting of the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, a 12-member panel appointed to study tobacco-related issues and advise the Food and Drug Administration on regulating the industry.

The advisory committee is scheduled to submit a report about the public-health impacts of menthol cigarettes to the FDA by March 23. The group could recommend banning menthol, but the FDA is not required to adopt the findings.

A draft copy of the panel’s report released this week said the evidence is insufficient to conclude that smokers face higher health risks from menthol cigarettes compared with unflavored cigarettes.

However, the report said menthol flavoring may make it easier for young people to start smoking and may increase the likelihood of addiction.

Lewis told the panel that the impact of menthol on smoking initiation is a “complex issue” that needs more study. The weight of evidence, she said, indicates that menthol flavoring does not increase smoking dependence.

A ban on menthol could instead have the unintended consequence of creating an illegal trade in menthol cigarettes, Lewis said.

David T. Levy, a professor of economics at the University of Baltimore, told the panel that his research indicates a ban on menthol would reduce smoking rates enough to prevent between 323,000 and 633,000 deaths from smoking-related diseases by 2050. He said the research was funded by the American Cancer Society and the American Legacy Foundation, a tobacco-control group.

Menthol brands make up about 30 percent of the U.S. cigarette market, and about 80 percent of black smokers use menthols, research from the Federal Trade Commission shows.

Niger Innis, a national spokesman for the civil-rights group Congress of Racial Equality, also argued before the committee that a ban on menthol would create an illicit trade.

He said his group supports “rigorous and early education about the dangers of smoking in the schools,” but not a ban on menthol.

“If the government is not going to ban all cigarettes, then the obvious question is why should it selectively ban those cigarettes that African-Americans tend to prefer?” he said.

The committee’s chairman, Dr. Jonathan Samet, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, said the report to the FDA would include research on the potential unintended consequences of a ban, such as an illegal, underground market.

Two of the nation’s largest cigarette makers last Friday filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the FDA from relying on recommendations made by the scientific advisory committee.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington by Lorillard Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., claims several members of the committee have a financial conflict of interest and bias because they have testified against tobacco companies in smokers’ lawsuits or worked for pharmaceutical firms that make smoking-cessation products.

Altria Group is not part of that lawsuit, but the company has raised objections with the FDA about alleged conflicts of interest among members on the advisory committee.

By John Reid Blackwell, Times-Dispatch
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