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Smoke and mirrors

A bill to let the FDA regulate flavored cigarettes would exempt menthol. Why? Profits.

May 14, 2008

Legislation that would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration power to regulate tobacco products includes the ability to ban flavored cigarettes, such as those infused with strawberry, cloves or cinnamon. But it stops short of listing the flavoring that actually entices the most smokers: menthol. Mentholated brands, it seems, are simply too important to the industry's bottom line. But let's be clear: It's not the brands that are important, it's the buyers -- African Americans.

Almost 75% of African American smokers use menthol brands, compared with one-quarter of white smokers, and removing menthol might lead to a significant drop in smoking. That could lead to a big drop in profits, as menthol cigarette sales account for more than a quarter of the $70-billion U.S. market.

But Congress is supposed to be acting in the public's interest, not the tobacco industry's, and one of the alleged goals of the legislation is to reduce smoking's appeal to young people. New smokers often find the taste of tobacco unpleasant or harsh, and tobacco companies have helped ease them into the habit with flavored cigarettes.

The industry maintains that menthol carries no proven health risk. But that's a red herring. No one is accusing strawberry or pineapple flavoring of causing cancer either, but removing them will make smoking less palatable to some. For whatever reason, menthol makes cigarettes more palatable for blacks. And that is a real risk. As a former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the New York Times: "Menthol induces smoking in the African American community and subsequently serves as a direct link to African American death and disease."

What we're asking for is honesty: The next time the anti-smoking lobby, Philip Morris and certain legislators say this legislation is needed to protect our children, they should have the decency to put the word "our" in quotations.

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