Are menthol cigarettes which account for one quarter of U.S. cigarette sales more addictive than other smokes? That’s a top question facing the FDA’s new advisory committee on tobacco regulation, which is meeting for the first time Tuesday. It’s tasked with determining whether menthols should be treated differently from regular tobacco.

After Congress shifted the authority to regulate tobacco products to the Food and Drug Administration, one of its first actions was to ban clove, cinnamon and other candy flavored cigarettes. It was a small market, and the cigarettes were sold primarily to young people.

Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids says it was easy for the FDA to ban the candy flavored tobacco.

“The products it banned had very few users and no sustained users,” he says, “so it wasn’t concerned about what would happen if you instantly withdrew them.”

On the other hand, millions of Americans buy menthol cigarettes, which make up more than one fourth of the industry’s $70 billion in sales.

In fact, a recent survey showed that nearly half of teenagers light up a menthol when they start to smoke. And it’s not just teenagers 75 percent of black smokers, compared with 25 percent of white smokers, prefer menthol.

“What we aren’t certain of Is it because menthol makes it easier to smoke because it coats your throat, or is there some other reason?” Myers says. “The advantage to FDA looking at this is that they will examine the science in its totality and give us an answer to that question once and for all.”

There are studies that show that African Americans tend to smoke fewer cigarettes yet suffer more smoking related health problems, and have greater difficulty in quitting. Historical documents show that the African American community was in fact targeted by the industry.

Congress ordered the new Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to study marketing, addiction and health effects to determine whether menthol should be treated differently from regular tobacco. There’s a 180 page list of studies that committee members will have a chance to discuss over the next two days. They’ll find there is very little consensus.

“It’s a very subtle issue,” says Andrew Hyland of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. He followed 13,000 smokers for five years to see whether menthol made cigarettes more addictive, for example. He found no difference between menthol and regular cigarettes.

“The products themselves are engineered to be addictive and to suck money out of their consumers’ pockets, basically,” Hyland says. The menthol, he concluded, was just a marketing tool.

“Does it have an extra addictive effect? Perhaps it does, but the answer to that question is fundamentally not that important relative to the broader issue of why is menthol in these products to begin with?” Hyland says. “It’s no different than putting cinnamon flavor in products to make them more attractive to would be smokers.”

Oddly enough, Hyland’s study is cited by the tobacco industry because he found that regular and menthol smokers quit at about the same rate.

Lorillard Tobacco Co. makes Newport, which has the largest share of the market. Lorillard said in a written statement that menthol has been used for decades in food, drink, cosmetics and other products. And a spokesman for Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro menthols, Parliaments and Virginia Slims, says any decision about menthol should be science based.

This week’s meeting is just a start. This summer, the advisory committee will review industry documents to see what’s in menthol cigarettes, something no one outside the industry has had complete access to before now.

Bloomberg wants to raise age limit for buying cigarettes – vitals

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No one under 21 would be able to buy cigarettes in New York City, under a new proposal announced Monday that marks the latest in a decade of moves to crack down on smoking in the nation’s largest city.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn discussed details of a proposed law that would raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, some of Quinn’s fellow City Council members and health advocates were to join her.

Under federal law, no one under 18 can buy tobacco anywhere in the country, but some states and localities have raised it to 19. Texas lawmakers recently tried to increase the minimum age to 21, but the plan stalled.

Public health advocates say a higher minimum age discourages, or at least delays, young people from starting smoking and thereby limits their health risks. But opponents of such measures have said 18 year olds, legally considered adults, should be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to smoke.

Some communities, including Needham, Mass., have raised the minimum age to 21, but New York would be the biggest city to do so.

“With this legislation, we’ll be targeting the age group at which the overwhelming majority of smokers start,” Quinn said.

Officials say 80 percent of NYC smokers started before age 21, and an estimated 20,000 New York City public high school students now smoke. While it’s already illegal for many of them to buy cigarettes, officials say this measure would play a key role by making it illegal for them to turn to slightly older friends to buy smokes for them. The vast majority of people who get asked to do that favor are between 18 and 21 themselves, city officials say.

“We know that enforcement is never going to be perfect,” but this measure should make it “much harder” for teens to get cigarettes, Farley said.

The Richmond, Va. based Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris USA, which makes the top selling Marlboro brand, had no immediate comment, said spokesman David Sutton. He previously noted that the company supported federal legislation that in 2009 gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products, which includes various retail restrictions.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the health commissioners he has appointed, including Farley, New York has rolled out a slate of anti smoking initiatives.

Bloomberg, a billionaire who has given $600 million of his own money to anti smoking efforts around the world, began taking on tobacco use in the city shortly after he became mayor in 2002.

Over his years in office, the city at times with the council’s involvement helped impose the highest cigarette taxes in the country, barred smoking at parks and on beaches and conducted sometimes graphic advertising campaigns about the hazards of smoking.

Last month, the Bloomberg administration unveiled a proposal to keep cigarettes out of sight in stores until an adult customer asks for a pack, as well as stopping shops from taking cigarette coupons and honoring discounts.

Bloomberg’s administration and public health advocates praise the initiatives as bold moves to help people live better. Adult smoking rates in the city have fallen from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 14.8 percent in 2011, Farley has said.

But the measures also have drawn complaints, at least initially, that they are nannyish and bad for business.

Several of New York City’s smoking regulations have survived court challenges. But a federal appeals court said last year that the city couldn’t force tobacco retailers to display gruesome images of diseased lungs and decaying teeth.

Quinn, a leading Democratic candidate to succeed Bloomberg next year, has often been perceived as an ally of his.

Bloomberg also has pushed a number of other pioneering public health measures, such as compelling chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, banning artificial trans fats in restaurants, and attempting to limit the size of sugary drinks. A court struck down the big beverage rule last month, but the city is appealing and Bloomberg has urged voluntary compliance in the meantime.

While Bloomberg has led the way on many anti smoking initiatives, this one arose from the City Council, Farley said. City Councilman James Gennaro, who lost his mother to lung cancer after she smoked for decades, has been a particularly strong advocate.


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