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Smoke menthols? You'll want to tune in to FDA's inaugural tobacco meeting

March 29, 2010 |  4:32 pm

Lots of smokers, lots of racial overtones, lots of interest. There's so much interest in menthol cigarettes and their regulation, in fact, that the Food and Drug Administration's newly created scientific advisory committee on tobacco products will be webcasting its inaugural meeting -- focusing entirely on menthol in tobacco -- on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 30 and 31. The panel is expected to tackle the question of whether and how mentholation of cigarettes should be regulated by the FDA. You can check the meeting out here.

First, a few facts from a comprehensive collection of research on menthol and tobacco produced by the National Cancer Institute: Menthol cigarettes account for 26% of all cigarettes sold in the United States. Among adult African Americans who smoke, nearly 7 in 10 smoke menthols. Smoking menthols is biggest among black women and 18- to 30-year-olds. Latinos also appear to be drawn to the frosty taste and sensation of menthols: Among Latinos who smoke almost 3 in 10 smoke menthols, compared with about 22% of non-Latino whites.

Those facts mean that any regulation of menthol in cigarettes will weigh more heavily in minority communities -- a sensitive subject for public policy. African Americans have the highest rates of lung cancer of any racial or ethnic group, and black men are far more likely than males of any other ethnic group to die of it. 

Beyond those glaring demographic facts, there's a lot of uncertainty about the role of menthol in cigarettes. Does menthol induce young people, and especially young African Americans, to take up the habit? Does it make it harder for those who smoke them to quit? Does the frosty flavoring prompt those who smoke menthols to drag harder or inhale more deeply? And are menthols any more cancer-causing than unmentholated cigarettes? These questions -- to which research has provided contradictory and incomplete answers -- will be discussed by the FDA's advisory committee, the membership of which is listed here.

Menthol is derived from the oil of peppermint, and it's also known as mint camphor. As luck would have it, it's a compound that in used in embalming, and in masking the smell of decomposition. The first brand of menthol cigarettes, Salem, was introduced by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on the American market in 1956, just as researchers outside the tobacco industry were beginning to collect evidence of cigarettes' dangers. (Newport is now the nation's biggest-selling brand of menthol cigarettes.)

--Melissa Healy