Menthol cigarettes aren’t cool to the FDA

In what could be one of its most paternalistic moves, the Food and Drug Administration is considering banning menthol in cigarettes – not because menthol itself is considered dangerous but because too many African-Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, and menthol may be a “gateway” smoke for young people.  An FDA panel focused on these thorny issues relating to menthol this week, with a view toward taking possible future action.

So let’s get this logic straight: members of a particular race particularly like that cool menthol taste, so the FDA wants to keep them from enjoying their smokes.  The top government nanny also says that menthol — because it tastes good – is used by cigarette companies to lure young people to smoke.

Given the fact that the FDA has tight restrictions on cigarette marketing and sales to young people under new rules that go into effect in June, and companies aren’t distributing free menthol cigarettes in the schools, it sounds like any youth who is “lured” into smoking menthol cigarettes is bumming the smokes.  Here’s a summary of the FDA’s new rules from a medical website:

  • Bans sale of cigarettes or smokeless tobacco to anyone under age 18.
  • Forbids tobacco brand-name sponsorship of any “athletic, musical, or other social or cultural event, or any team or entry in those events.”
  • Bans sale of cigarette packs containing fewer than 20 cigarettes.
  • Bans sale of cigarettes via vending machines or self-service displays “except in very limited situations.”
  • Prohibits free samples of cigarettes and limits samples of smokeless tobacco.
  • Forbids gifts in exchange for buying tobacco products.
  • Allows only words — and no music or sound effects — in audio ads for tobacco products.
  • Bans the sale or distribution of gear, such as hats and T-shirts, with tobacco brands or logos.

Those rules are pretty stringent, but Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says they’re not enough where children are concerned.  She noted that somehow, some way, tobacco companies are getting to the kids:

“Despite a ban on direct marketing to young Americans, tobacco companies have still found a way to reach out to them,” Sebelius said at a news conference. “It’s no accident that Marlboro, Camel, and Newport, the three brands that spend the most on ads, are more preferred by children than by adults.”

The FDA panels this week are part of what is expected to be a year-long review of menthol, even though Dr. Joshua Rising, an FDA scientist, said that limited data “do not suggest that menthol cigarettes are associated with an earlier age of initiation.” And what words for adult smokers who like their menthol cigarettes?  Trust the FDA to protect you with a ban or a phase-out or an additional warning for menthol.