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Menthol: The 'gateway' cigarettes?
July 14th, 2011
03:07 PM ET

Menthol: The 'gateway' cigarettes?

Aaron Candlers says he likes to smoke cigarettes when he is stressed.

If the Atlanta construction worker has a tough day on the job, he lights up.

If he has a beef with the family, Candlers is puffing away.

And if his late model Ford Explorer breaks down on the Atlanta freeway, as it did recently, Candlers will be headed to the corner store to re-up on the nicotine sticks.

"It just died on me," Candler says between long drags off a cigarette. "So I was like real stressed and I think I smoked half a pack of cigarettes waiting on the tow truck."

Like about 19 million other Americans, Candlers smokes menthol cigarettes - for now. The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering whether to ban menthol from cigarettes. Candlers, a stocky man with a beard and a wide smile, says that would be a bad decision.

"They gonna have a war on their hands," Candlers says of the FDA. "I know a lot of folks that smoke menthols, and it would be wrong just to ban one type of cigarette."

But the U.S. government has already banned other types of cigarettes. Flavored beedies, cloves, cigarettes with spices, peppermint and vanilla have all been banned in an effort to discourage teenagers from picking up the habit. Basically, anything that makes tobacco easier to taste or inhale has been targeted by the FDA and Congress.

The FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is recommending menthol be banned. The committee issued a report earlier this year finding that menthol cigarettes are overwhelmingly smoked by the poor, the young and African-Americans.

John Sepulvado reports for CNN Radio:

Former U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan has been urging a menthol ban for years. He says they disproportionately harm the black community.

"First of all, about 28% of all cigarettes are mentholated, but when you look at cigarettes consumed by the African-American community, 80% are mentholated," Sullivan says. "And if the Congress can enact the legislation to prohibit the addition of flavorings to tobacco, then my position is that Congress can also add menthol to the list of banned substances."

Cash cow for tobacco companies

Sales of menthol cigarettes in the U.S. have gone up between four and five percent the past decade, according to a review of Security Exchange Commission filings and data collected by the Centers for Disease Control. During the same time, most regular cigarettes have declined in sales.

The best selling menthol brand, Newport, is one of the most popular in the African American community, followed by KOOL. Lorillard Tobacco Co makes Newport.

In a recent report submitted to the FDA, the company stated that menthol cigarettes pose the same health risk as regular cigarettes. On an April conference call with investors, Lorillard CEO Murray Kessler said the science shows no greater harm.

"Beyond the scientific evidence," Kessler continued, "we believe that when the countervailing effects are seriously studied, such as the black market implications of additional menthol restrictions, that the case that there should be no disproportionate menthol regulation becomes obvious."

Lorillard commissioned a study showing black market menthol cigarettes could create "billions" in illicit trade. However, a National Cancer Institute study shows almost half of African-Americans who smoke menthols would quit if the product was banned. Lorillard declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Lorillard has begun selling regular cigarettes under the Newport brand name for the first time in the product's history.

"Encouragingly, Newport non-menthol was a solid contributor to the quarter, as weekly volume and share on this new brand continue to grow," Kessler told investors during the April conference call.

Lorillard has insisted the new product line is meant to compete with Camel, Marlboro, and other more established regular flavor cigarette brands-but the product launch came as scrutiny on menthol cigarettes increased, suggesting Lorillard is taking out an insurance policy in case their cash cow is put to pasture.

'Keep it away from kids'

The FDA panel says young menthol cigarette smokers are more likely to stay hooked compared to young people who smoke regular cigarettes. Alexander Sutton says in his neighborhood, 13 and 14 year olds run around with Newports dangling from their mouths. A former menthol smoker, Sutton says he’s disgusted the cigarettes are so popular among underage teens.

"It's hurting our community," he says. "They smoke, and then they drink, and then they be doing things their mamas told them not to. They don't got the same sense as adults, but they get addicted the same."

Still, Sutton says menthol cigarettes should stay on the market because "adults should be able to have some choice." Instead, Sutton says he would like to see more role models offer positive examples for teens in his neighborhood.

"I think they should come up with better ways to encourage kids and show them drastic measures what causes when you smoke. I’m telling you, you got the rappers and all the people you looking up to, and the first thing they say is ‘I aint no role model shouldn’t follow me.’ But that’s a lie. Because if you selling millions of records, people listen to you. So you do whatever you do, but keep it away from the kids."

The FDA is expected to finish its menthol evaluation by this fall.

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Filed under: Smoking

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