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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

soundoff (282 Responses)
  1. RAYINNJ

    Shouldn't this be a choice? Furthermore, since "...when you look at cigarettes consumed by the African-American community, 80% are mentholated," what will be done if one is found in possession of these outlawed cigs – put in jail for illegal contraband? Homes 'raided' for cartons of cigarettes being sold in the black market? Really? And our jails aren't full enough? Guess this will be like the coke epidemic and disportionate sentencing between whites and blacks!! Just more government intrusions on the "freedoms" of Americans. Grown adults CAN make their own decisions – even if bad and it kills them – in a free society! Stop the menthol? Then stop all of the liquor and alcohol sales – a drug that harms, sickens, and kills more people than all others combined.

    July 15, 2011 at 11:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. chris

    Menthol is a starter? I started on Marlboro ("regular"); menthol is just nasty. Same for cloves, etc (don't even like them in cooking). I always liked the taste of normal cigarettes when I smoked (quit 20 yrs ago).

    My point? It's all subjective in the end. Unless you ban ALL cigarettes (...Mexican gangs will smuggle them in & sell to us for big bucks...) don't even bother trying to slice-and-dice people's preferences.

    July 15, 2011 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Guest

    They tried banning alcohol once, wasn't there a little thing called Prohibition? That crusade was run by the grandparents of the anti-smokers, and we all know how that turned out. Bootlegging and loss of tax revenue. What will be next once you open the floodgates? All cars except the hybrids that only the wealthy can afford? No tobacco except for the cigar bars for the wealthy? No gambling, except for the wealthy? Gee, am I seeing a pattern here? And OMG, the worst of the worst...peanuts?

    July 15, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dsopinion

    While I am not a supporter of the tobacco industry, or smoking in general, history shows that banning something from the public does little to seriously curb use and incentivizes a black market (see prohibition, or current drug war). I am in the medical field and have to take care of people that destroy their health by smoking, so I hate cigarettes, but I think a better approach is to keep it legal, but incentivize healthier behaviors. Smoking can be "punished" by jacking up their insurance or hospital fees, adding more taxes to buy packs of cigarettes (the tax on a pack of cigarettes could be kept proportional to the burden on our healthcare system that smoking causes), and limiting the places people are allowed to smoke.

    July 15, 2011 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • George, New York

      Good idea about making use smokers pick up more of the health care cost but too be fare also include alcohol which puts just as much burdon on health care, jails, police, and family abuse. It seems the non-smokers don't want to post any of those fact based costs to society.

      July 16, 2011 at 05:00 | Report abuse |
    • George, New York

      I'm sorry, the only costs that smoking adds to are the health care. The others I mentioned such as jails, police, and family abuse are only related to alcohol. Get it?

      July 16, 2011 at 05:02 | Report abuse |
  5. Name*adam

    Let me keep smoking my brand, I am a free person in a free nation,who cares damage is already done to my lungs,will buy from amigo

    July 15, 2011 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Andrea M

    Mmmm, cloves. Tastes like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Scissor Sisters, and wonderful nights with friends. Of course, it's not like they're that hard to get anymore, they just made them bigger, put them in 12 packs and renamed them mini cigars, lol. Now my only trouble is being able to finish a whole one! Make menthols illegal and it'll be the exact same deal.

    July 15, 2011 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jowl

    I thought Clove cigarettes where the 'gateway' cigarettes? You know, those ones Obama made ILLEGAL to buy or sell in the US three months into his presidency using this same argument.

    No wonder Newport has come out with a non-menthol version.. They are being forced into protecting their business

    July 17, 2011 at 18:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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