Reporting from Washington — Adding menthol to cigarettes may increase the likelihood of addiction and make it easier for young people to start smoking, according to preliminary findings of a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel.
The panel said the scientific evidence showed that "menthol has cooling and anesthetic effects that reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke" and this reduction "could facilitate initiation or early persistence of smoking by youth."
The committee also said menthol was likely to make low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes more satisfying, "and smokers who switch to low-yield cigarettes for health concerns may be more likely to continue to smoke rather than quit."
The FDA has already banned candy, fruit and spice flavorings in cigarettes because of their potential to lure young smokers. But the 2009 law that gave the agency regulatory authority over cigarettes specified that menthol should be evaluated separately.
Menthol cigarettes make up about 30% of the cigarette market and are favored by about 80% of black smokers, who suffer from disproportionately high rates of lung cancer and other smoking-related disease.
Some civil rights groups, including the Congress of Racial Equality, have said that a ban on menthol would unfairly target black consumers. Others, such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have argued that menthol should not be treated more leniently than other flavorings that make cigarettes more alluring — especially to young smokers.
The preliminary findings were contained in a draft report by the 12-member panel and were posted on the FDA's website ahead of a meeting Wednesday.
The final report is due by March 23. Its recommendations are nonbinding and could range from no action to outlawing use of the mint-like flavoring.
The FDA usually follows the recommendations of its advisory panels. Many analysts, including some anti-smoking advocates, do not expect the agency to impose a ban on menthol.
"There are no surprises" in the report, said Michael Siegel, an expert on smoking's public health effects and a professor at Boston University. "There is no evidence that menthol cigarettes are more harmful, so if that is your criterion, then a ban on menthol is not supported.
"However, menthol clearly masks the harshness of cigarette smoking, so if you look at this from a marketing perspective, yes, of course menthol contributes to increased cigarette sales," Siegel said in an e-mail.
Philip Gorham, an analyst who tracks tobacco companies for the investment research firm Morningstar Inc., said the draft slightly bolsters the possibility that the panel will recommend some restrictions on menthol, such as limiting the marketing of the cigarettes.
"It feels like they've left the door open" to do something short of recommending a ban, Gorham said.
Gregg Perry, a spokesman for tobacco company Lorillard Inc., said the draft documents appeared to support the company's position that "a menthol cigarette is no more dangerous than a non-menthol cigarette … as it relates to diseases caused by cigarette smoking."
"While we don't know what nonbinding recommendation the FDA advisory panel will ultimately reach, we believe that the evidence clearly shows there is no justification for increased regulation of menthol cigarettes," Perry said.