Menthol cigarettes are coming under fire this morning from researchers who say these products should be banned.
The salvo against the cigarettes comes in the form of a special supplemental issue to the journal Addiction that includes 11 new studies on menthol-flavored cigarettes, the consumers who smoke them, and the factors that may influence smoking and quitting menthols.
Among the findings from the special supplement are data suggesting that menthol cigarette use is disproportionately higher among African Americans and young adults and that menthol smokers tend to be less successful when they try to quit.
"These manuscripts, along with those in the prior literature, show that menthol cigarette smoking disproportionately impacts populations at risk of initiating smoking, young people, and tobacco-related health disparities," said Dr. Kola Okuyemi, senior editor of the supplement, in a statement. "These papers add to the body of evidence that informs future research and policy directions regarding mentholated cigarettes."
The special supplement, funded by the National Cancer Institute, is only the latest knock on mint-flavored smokes -- and it won't be the last. This Thursday, U.S. Food and Drug Administration experts will review the safety of menthols.
The release of the research comes after opening statements last week in a wrongful death lawsuit against cigarette manufacturer Lorillard Inc., the maker of Newport menthols. The suit, opened in a Boston court this past Friday, was lodged by a man who said the company's marketing plan -- which he said included free menthol giveaways to children living in Boston housing projects -- led to his African-American mother's death after she became hooked at the age of 9.
The public health organization Legacy, which has criticized the marketing of menthol cigarettes in the past, is leading the charge.
"The tobacco industry has a long history of promoting menthol cigarettes to minorities, and it shows," said Cheryl G. Healton, president and CEO of Legacy, in a statement. "The menthol smoking rates among minority communities are disproportionately high, and to add insult to injury, once they do decide to quit, it is often more challenging for them to do so successfully.
"We believe that the comprehensive findings of this special issue along with past research provide the FDA with the necessary information to ban menthol."
The push for such a ban would likely meet stiff resistance from manufacturers. Lorillard, on its website, provides a link to a website called Understanding Menthol. Material on the website argues, among other things, that menthol cigarettes are no more harmful to health than non-flavored cigarettes.
"Lorillard believes that the scientific evidence does not show that menthol in cigarettes is harmful, and that Americans have a right to make a personal choice to use any legal product," the website states.
Moreover, the website maintains that "[i]f menthol is banned, about 30 percent of all cigarettes would become illegal. Prohibition of menthol cigarettes would lead to the illegal sale of more dangerous cigarettes through an unprecedented underground market."
The FDA banned clove and fruit-flavored cigarettes in September 2009 as part of a national effort to reduce teen smoking in the U.S.
"These flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers," Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of food and drugs, said when announcing the ban.
It was the first major FDA action against tobacco manufacturers since being granted the right to regulate cigarettes under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act signed by President Obama in June.
The ban affected not just flavored tobacco, but all flavored filters and cigarette rolling papers except for menthol-flavored products.
The omission of menthol, the most popular additive, from the ban left many tobacco experts puzzled.
"Getting rid of the flavor additives is a good thing; the only elephant in the room is menthol," said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine and director of the University of California San Francisco's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, at the time of the ban.
"It's pretty outrageous to leave menthol off the list," Glantz added. "Menthol is very important to the tobacco industry."