US: Opposition to Menthol Cigarettes Grows

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

Seven former federal health secretaries
joined on Wednesday to protest menthol's special treatment in a tobacco
bill pending in Congress.

The seven, from Democratic and
Republican administrations, faxed a letter to members of the Senate and
House of Representatives demanding that menthol-flavored cigarettes be
banned just like various other cigarette flavorings the legislation
would outlaw.

One of the former secretaries, Joseph A. Califano Jr.,
said the legislation was "clearly putting black children in the back of
the bus." He was referring to menthol cigarettes as being the choice of
three out of four black smokers and being frequently preferred by young
smokers.

An estimated 80 percent of African-American teenage smokers pick menthol brands, the letter said.

The
letter reflects a growing controversy over the bill's current exemption
of menthol from a list of banned flavorings - an exemption some
lawmakers said was intended to garner support from Philip Morris. The
maker of Marlboro Menthol, the second-leading menthol brand after
Lorillard's Newport, Philip Morris has endorsed the bill, although most
other cigarette companies oppose it.

The bill would for the first time give the Food and Drug Administration
the power to regulate tobacco. While several groups have said the bill
does not go far enough to regulate the tobacco industry and fails to
promote safer tobacco products, most major public health advocacy
groups have endorsed it.

Some antismoking advocates have said
they see the menthol exemption as a necessary compromise toward getting
the legislation passed, and they have said that the bill as currently
drafted would give the F.D.A. the authority to limit or eliminate
additives, including menthol, if they are proved to be harmful.

As
now written the legislation would ban cigarettes flavored with
strawberry, chocolate and a number of other fruit, candy and spice
flavorings. Those flavorings have occasionally been added to cigarettes
in what critics say are a lure to children. But the bill specifically
protects menthol from the ban, even though menthol is the most widely
used flavoring. Menthol brands account for 28 percent of the $70
billion American cigarette market.

The bill has cleared key committees in both the Senate and the House but it is not yet scheduled for floor votes.

Responding to the letter from the former secretaries, the bill's House sponsor, Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Wednesday that he believes an outright ban on menthol is not the best way to address it.

"I'm
determined to see tobacco legislation pass Congress that protects all
our children," Mr. Waxman said. "Leading public health experts have
told us that giving F.D.A. the authority to ban menthol is the best way
to balance both public health considerations with the reality that many
adults only smoke menthol cigarettes. I'll continue our ongoing review
to make sure we are dealing with this issue in the most effective way
possible."

Menthol is derived from mint and is also available
synthetically. Smoking menthol-flavored cigarettes gives the mouth a
cool feeling, similar to sucking on a peppermint, and can help mask the
harsh taste of tobacco.

The bill's treatment of menthol "caves
to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates
against African-Americans - the segment of our population at greatest
risk for the killing and crippling smoking-related diseases," the
letter from the former secretaries said. "It sends a message that
African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters."

Mr.
Califano said that even though the bill gives the F.D.A. the authority
to remove additives it would require a lengthy process that "could go
on and on and on, and you're talking about years before you get through
the administrative process and the courts."

Mr. Califano, who served as health secretary under President Jimmy Carter,
said the idea to send the letter began when Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the
health secretary during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, called him to complain about the bill's treatment of menthol.

"We
both got our blood boiling," Mr. Califano said in a telephone
interview. They also decided to contact other past health secretaries.
Five of them were reached and all agreed to sign onto the letter,
according to Mr. Califano, who now runs the National Center on
Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

They are Tommy G. Thompson, who was a health secretary under the current President Bush; Donna E. Shalala,
from the Clinton administration; Richard S. Schweicker and Dr. Otis R.
Bowen, from the Reagan administration; and F. David Matthews from the
Ford administration.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Sullivan,
the president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta,
said, "My issue is that menthol should not be added because it's added
as an inducement, an enabler, to induce young people to smoke."

In
1990, Dr. Sullivan was instrumental in pressuring R. J. Reynolds not to
market its Uptown cigarette, a menthol brand intended to appeal to
black smokers.

In addition to the former secretaries, two other
people signed the letter. They were Dr. Julius B. Richmond, who served
as surgeon general in the Carter administration, and William S.
Robinson, the executive director of the National African American
Tobacco Prevention Network, a nonprofit organization in Durham, N.C.

Mr. Robinson's organization said last week that it was withdrawing its support from the bill because of the menthol exemption.

AMP Section Name:Tobacco
  • 208 Regulation