Last March an expert panel convened by the US Food and Drug Administration said a ban on menthol cigarettes -- which account for 30 percent of cigarette sales -- would benefit public health. All other cigarette flavorings have been banned by the FDA, but the agency still hasn't made a decision about menthol.
Three new studies published online yesterday in the American Journal of Public Health, though, might spur the agency to ban the flavoring: One study finds that Americans generally support the ban -- even those who currently smoke menthols; another shows that smokers of menthols are less successful at quitting than those who smoke non-menthols; and the third estimated that if a menthol ban were initiated today, it would result in 633,000 lives saved by 2050 (based on 30 percent of current menthol users quitting and a lower smoker initiation rate).
Menthols have been a heated source of controversy ever since news reports revealed that they were given away free to black children in the 1960s. That tobacco industry marketing campaign worked: Some 83 percent of current African-American smokers say they choose menthols compared with 24 percent of white smokers.
In addition to providing a minty taste, "menthol numbs the throat and allows smoke to go in more deeply, making it easier to get addicted to," explains Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at MassGeneral Hospital for Children who led one of the new studies, which surveyed more than 2,000 people to measure support for a menthol ban.
Some 68 percent of blacks who were surveyed said they would support banning the flavoring from cigarettes, in addition to 53 percent of whites. "Even over half of the African-American smokers we surveyed said they wanted a ban of their own product of choice," says Winickoff. "They're kind of saying we're trapped by this product and we don't want our children to get hooked."
The study in the journal that estimated lives that would be saved by a ban calculated the prevention of more than 237,000 deaths of African Americans by 2050.
In a recent document provided to the FDA, tobacco industry representatives argued that menthol cigarettes don't pose "any disproportionate impact on public health" compared with regular cigarettes and, thus, shouldn't be regulated any differently.
The new study in the American Journal of Public Health, however, suggests that quit attempts were higher in menthol smokers but that the likelihood of quitting was 3.5 percent lower over the past year and 6 percent lower over the past five years in those who smoked menthols compared with nonmenthols.
The tobacco industry has also argued that consumers who use menthols want the freedom to be able to purchase their preferred brand -- a claim that's Winickoff says has been called into question by the new survey.
We'll just have to wait and see what the FDA decides to do, though some -- including a Boston University physician -- have recently blasted the agency's expert panel for not coming out in full support of a menthol ban.
Take the survey below and tell me what you think. Should menthols be banned?
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