An FDA advisory panel Friday said "removal of menthol cigarettes… (Mario Tama Getty / Images )
Reporting from Washington — A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel Friday said that "removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States."
The panel's assessment is, in effect, a recommendation that the FDA consider banning menthol, the flavoring used in about 30% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S.
There's no timetable for an FDA decision, and neither is there a requirement that the agency accept the advisory panel's advice.
Lawrence Deyton, head of the FDA's tobacco office, said the agency would issue a progress report on its review of the panel's findings in about 90 days.
The panel said it was making no specific suggestions on a course of action for the FDA and Deyton cautioned that its advice "does not set FDA policy."
Tobacco industry analysts interpreted the absence of an explicit recommendation of a ban as a signal that the FDA would not completely eliminate menthol, and shares of Lorillard Inc., which gets 90% of its income from its Newport menthol brand, surged in the hours after the panel met.
A ban, if one is enacted, is expected to take years to put into effect.
Antismoking groups hailed the panel's advice and urged the FDA to follow through with a ban.
"We urge the FDA to promptly act on [the panel's] findings. Many menthol smokers will likely use a ban on menthol as an opportunity to quit and it will save their lives," Cheryl G. Healton, president of the nonprofit Legacy for Health, said in a statement.
A review of menthol was mandated by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act which put tobacco under the regulatory authority of the FDA.
The law banned other flavorings, like fruit and spice, because of their potential to lure young smokers. But in a political compromise, it specified a separate review for menthol.
In 10 meetings stretching back a year, the panel weighed the public health effect of menthol cigarettes, evaluating how they've been marketed, their appeal to youth, physiological effects and other factors.
In draft chapters of a final report due Wednesday, the panel said the scientific evidence showed that menthol has cooling and numbing effects that reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke and that could make it easier for young people to start smoking and harder for them to quit.
The committee also said menthol was likely to make low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes more satisfying, and that smokers "who switch to low-yield cigarettes for health concerns may be more likely to continue to smoke rather than quit."
Tobacco companies also warned that a menthol ban would lead to a large black market, loss of tax revenue and make it easier for underage kids to smoke.
The 12-member advisory committee acknowledged that development of a black market was a possibility, but left it to the FDA to determine the seriousness of the threat.
Tobacco firms also contended that there's no difference in damage to health between mentholated and unflavored cigarettes.
The panel in large measure concurred, finding that "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."
That finding is key, because in the view of industry analysts, it increases the possibility that the FDA will try to deal with menthol through limits on marketing rather than through an outright ban.
It also helped explain the surge in shares of Lorillard Inc. following the advisory panel announcement.
Lorillard gets about 90% of its revenue from a single menthol brand, Newport, and has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign against menthol restrictions and sued FDA to prevent it from using the panel's findings.
But shares of Lorillard, which closed at $78.78 on Thursday, were trading in the $85 range hours after the FDA panel decision.
"The market sees little in the FDA panel findings to suggest that an outright ban is likely, based on the finding that menthol smokers are not at higher risk -- with tighter marketing restrictions being the more likely outcome," said R.J. Hottovy, director of consumer research for Morningstar Inc., an investment research firm.
Two larger cigarette makers, Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., have significant, but much smaller, stakes in menthol brands. Their shares also were up on Friday, though much more modestly than Lorillard's.