Menthol acquitted

The FDA has completed its investigation into menthol cigarettes and found that they are no more hazardous than normal cigarettes. Michael Siegel summarizes:

In its draft of Chapter 6 of the report, TPSAC reviews the evidence on whether menthol cigarettes are more hazardous than non-menthol cigarettes, including smoking typology, biomarker, toxicology, and epidemiologic studies. The Committee concludes that:

1. “The evidence is insufficient to conclude that it is more likely than not that menthol cigarette smokers inhale more smoke than non‐menthol cigarette smokers.”

2. “The evidence is insufficient to conclude that it is more likely than not that menthol cigarette smokers are exposed to higher levels of nicotine and other tobacco smoke toxins, at least in regular daily smokers of more than 5 or 10 cigarettes per day. There are insufficient data to know if among smokers of relatively few cigarettes per day menthol cigarettes result in greater smoke intake and more exposure to tobacco smoke toxins.”

3. “The evidence is insufficient to conclude that smokers of menthol cigarettes face a different risk of tobacco‐caused diseases than smokers of non‐menthol cigarettes.”

The panel did find that menthol can enhance the smoking experience, making it less likely for smokers to quit. But this is obvious: If people didn’t like flavored cigarettes, no one would make them. Siegel again:

It is not clear what the criterion should be for the FDA to decide whether to ban menthol. If the FDA applies the criterion that was used to ban the other cigarette flavorings (i.e., whether the flavorings might enhance the taste of the product), then it would be forced to ban menthol cigarettes. In fact, the FDA would also be forced to ban all cigarette flavorings and additives, since all of them are added to enhance the ultimate bottom line: the quality and appeal of the smoking experience. If the product’s appeal were not enhanced by an additive, then that additive would not be added. This is a tautological issue, not a legitimate scientific question.

If the FDA applies the criterion suggested by Lorillard – that to be banned, menthol cigarettes must be more hazardous than non-menthol cigarettes – then the FDA would have no grounds to ban menthol cigarettes.

Siegel is right that this is not a question of science it all. It’s a question of what the FDA, Congress, and the president can get away with politically. From my Examiner column last year:

Because many consumers prefer mentholated cigarettes, one can claim that menthols are harder to quit or encourage more people to take up smoking. However this is not the same as showing that they are more “addictive.” By that standard, anything companies add to their products to increase their appeal to consumers would make them addictive. Menthol “masks” the harsh taste of tobacco in the same that milk and sugar mask the bitter taste of Starbucks coffee or barrel aging masks the bite of white dog whiskey. If menthol cigarettes are more dangerous than regular cigarettes, it’s simply because people like smoking them more. […]

Throughout the FDA’s hearings the most important question gets almost no attention: If a consenting adult wants to smoke a menthol (or clove, or banana…) cigarette, why shouldn’t he or she be allowed to? The agency claims to be concerned for children, but in seeking to ban flavored cigarettes it treats all adults like careless youths. The preferences of consumers are deemed irrelevant; smokers assumed to be dupes or addicts incapable of making their own decisions.

This hearing is, in essence, a debate about whether the FDA should ban a product simply because it is unhealthy and people enjoy it. Once that precedent is set it is a much shorter step to prohibiting cigarette sales entirely.

If anything, this new report just confirms that there was never any scientific justification for the initial ban on all other cigarette flavorings.