WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration said for the first time Tuesday that menthol-flavored cigarettes appear to pose a greater risk to public health than standard cigarettes, largely reaffirming the findings of an agency advisory committee two years ago and potentially laying the groundwork for tighter regulations in the future.
In a 153-page "preliminary scientific evaluation," the FDA found that although there is "little evidence" to suggest that menthol cigarettes are more toxic than nonmenthol cigarettes, the mint flavor of menthol masks the harshness of tobacco, making it easier to get addicted and harder to quit.
Despite those findings, the FDA stopped short Tuesday of proposing specific restrictions or a ban on menthol, instead saying it would solicit public input for the next two months before deciding how to proceed. That probably means that any potential regulations remain months, if not years, from becoming reality.
The issue of menthol in cigarettes has long been controversial, in part because menthol cigarettes overwhelmingly are favored by African-Americans and teenagers. Sales of them account for about a quarter of the U.S. cigarette market. But about 80 percent of black smokers prefer menthol, as do nearly half of all young smokers.
Congress banned candy-, fruit- and spice-flavored cigarettes when it gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco in 2009, saying manufacturers had used such products to lure young smokers into addiction. But the law exempted menthol, instead instructing the FDA to study the issue to determine whether restricting or banning menthol would benefit public health.
In 2010, an FDA advisory panel made up of doctors, scientists and public-health experts convened to weigh that question. The next year, the group issued a 250-page report saying that menthol made it easier to get hooked and more difficult to quit smoking. The group concluded that "removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit the public health in the United States."
The tobacco industry has steadfastly defended its use of menthol, saying it is no more harmful than any other type of tobacco.