Bay Area elected officials urge FDA to ban menthol in cigarettes

San Francisco (September 18, 2011)

Bay Area anti-tobacco advocates are lobbying elected officials to urge the federal government to ban the use of menthol in cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Menthol flavoring makes cigarettes more palatable to new smokers, increases the smoking rate among African-Americans and may make it harder for some people to quit, public health advocates say.

So far, Martinez, San Pablo, Richmond, Oakland, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, San Mateo County Solano County and San Francisco have passed resolutions encouraging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban menthol.

When Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia sponsored the resolution this past October, no other county had passed it yet.

"It's always amazing to me how creative the tobacco industry is in finding ways to improve its marketing among various populations," he said at the time. "I think this is an attempt to do that, and it's important that public agencies, public health agencies speak out on this issue."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke kills about 443,000 people every year in the United States. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which was signed into law in 2009, gives the FDA authority to regulate the distribution, manufacture and marketing of tobacco products.

While the graphic new warning labels on cigarette packs have drawn attention, public health advocates say the law's ban of candy and fruit flavorings in cigarettes is just as important for curbing teen smoking. The ban on flavorings does not apply to cigars, smokeless tobacco and other products.

The decision to exempt menthol from the flavoring ban disappointed the public health officials. According to national polls, 44 percent of smokers ages 12 to 17 smoke menthol cigarettes and 80 percent of African-American smokers choose menthols. Menthol opens the airways in the lungs and allows smokers to breathe more deeply, said Serena Chen, policy director for the American Lung Association in California. Surveys indicate that smokers might give up cigarettes if menthol products are no longer available, she added.

The federal law didn't close the door on the issue. It also directs the federal agency's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to submit a report on the public health effect of menthol and to make a recommendation on the flavoring to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The committee reviewed scientific research and confidential tobacco industry documents. Issued in March, the report concludes that removing menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health. The report found that menthol cigarettes entice young people to try smoking and increase the likelihood they will become regular smokers, and that they make it harder for African-Americans to quit. The committee also said that there is evidence the tobacco industry disproportionately markets menthol cigarettes to young people and African-Americans.

The tobacco industry also submitted a report on menthol to the FDA in which it concedes that all cigarettes are hazardous, but rejects the notion that menthol cigarettes are more harmful to overall public health or to the health of any demographic group than nonmenthol cigarettes.

"As a result, there is no scientific basis to support the regulation of menthol cigarettes any differently than non-menthol cigarettes," the industry report says.

An FDA spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the committee's report. Public health advocates plan to submit the resolutions to the FDA during the public comment period.

Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder said he typically shies away from wading into national issues that don't affect the city directly. However, two factors changed his mind, he said -- the statistics about who smokes menthol cigarettes and the fact that Martinez has taken a strong stand against secondhand smoke.

"At worst, (the resolutions) are symbolic gestures. At best, they end up informing and educating and bringing along our elected officials," Chen said. "It's all part of an educational program in which you do more than educate, in which you ask the elected officials to take a stand for the community, to take a stand for public health."

 

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