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Menthol's cool feeling comes at a price -- and the FDA knows this

March 18, 2011|By Tami Dennis, Tribune Health
  • An FDA panel has said, in effect, no good can come of menthol cigarettes.
An FDA panel has said, in effect, no good can come of menthol cigarettes. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Menthol seems fresh, cool, natural -- and that's what makes it dangerous. Added to the tobacco in cigarettes, menthol makes the biologically nightmarish act of inhaling smoke feel much better than it should.

Just ask the panel charged with advising the Food and Drug Administration on the additive.

The panel has delivered to the FDA, both oddly and appropriately in charge of regulating cigarettes, a lengthy report about the public health effect of menthol in sticks of smokable tobacco.

RELATED: FDA panel says ban on menthol cigarettes would benefit public health

The report poses the following questions:

-- "Does menthol have cooling and/or anesthetic properties that moderate the harshness of cigarette smoke?"

-- "Does menthol make low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes more acceptable to smokers?"

-- "Does menthol have an effect on nicotine or nicotine-derived nitrosamine metabolism?"

-- "Is it biologically plausible that menthol increases the addictiveness of cigarette smoking?"

Yes, are the answers, in long-winded but enlightening form, to each one.

And that's simply the report's look at individual smokers. At that point, the authors were just getting warmed up.

There's also data showing menthol cigarette use is common among women, minorities, the unemployed, poor people and, most alarming, adolescents. Young people, it seems, like menthol quite a bit. And who can blame them? New smokers need all the help they can get.

There's more in the report of course, so very much more.

But let's focus on the big picture.

The report asks: "Does the availability of menthol cigarettes increase the prevalence of smoking in the population, beyond the anticipated prevalence if such cigarettes were not available? In subgroups within the population?"

And the report answers: "The evidence is sufficient to conclude that it is more likely than not that the availability of menthol cigarettes increases the likelihood of experimentation and regular smoking beyond the anticipated prevalence if such cigarettes were not available, in the general population and particularly in African Americans."

That would seem to be a "yes."

Thus does the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee make its way toward its recommendation to the FDA: "Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States."

Friday's delivery of this recommendation puts the ball in the Food and Drug Administration's court. The agency can't say it lacks facts. 

RELATED: Blacks divided over possible menthol ban

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