Congress wants to give the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate cigarettes and even ban most flavored cigarettes. But there's a catch. Menthol cigarettes would be exempted from the ban, leaving in place a large portion of the cigarette market that has particular appeal to young people and to African-Americans. That appears to be the distasteful price for putting cigarettes under the watchful eye of the FDA.
But if Congress indeed gives the FDA the oversight authority, the agency should look seriously at the scientific evidence and make its own determination about whether menthol cigarettes deserve a regulatory pass.
Legislation passed by a House committee would have the FDA review all new tobacco products before they could go on the market, approve statements before they could be put on product packages, and set standards for tobacco products that protect public health. In addition, the FDA could restrict the sale or distribution of tobacco products and issue warnings or recalls for particularly harmful products. The regulatory scheme would be paid for through user fees imposed on cigarette manufacturers. A similar bill is working its way through the Senate.
The legislation prohibits flavored cigarettes - natural or artificial - but makes an exception for tobacco and menthol flavors. Pro-regulation legislators and anti-smoking advocates were understandably concerned about flavors such as cinnamon that are meant to appeal to younger smokers. But considering that mentholated brands make up more than 25 percent of the American cigarette market, that's a pretty big exception. Menthol can give cigarettes a milder flavor that makes them more attractive to new - and young - smokers, and perhaps more addictive for experienced smokers who are trying to quit. An estimated 75 percent of African-American smokers prefer menthol brands.
Exempting menthol from the ban may be a necessary bargain struck with the industry in order to get any kind of regulation approved. But a harmful product shouldn't be allowed to hide behind cool flavoring. Congress should think twice about including mentholated cigarettes in the mix. But if Congress doesn't budge, then once the FDA takes charge, it should not hesitate to judge for itself whether menthol cigarettes pose any less of a health threat.