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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2008

Like a cigarette should

AS LONG as Congress is weighing whether to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products and additives, it should take a close new look at menthol cigarettes.

A new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, indicates that menthol, which is among substances included in proposed restriction on cigarette flavorings, is particulary insidious.

Menthol has been used for decades to mask the harshness and taste of tobacco smoke. But the Harvard study, based on industry documents released as part of legal action, says tobacco companies have deliberately manipulated menthol levels to attract young cigarette smokers and keep older ones.

According to the researchers, companies studied how controlling levels of menthol could increase brand sales. A review of more than 500 internal industry records suggests that the companies concluded that new and younger smokers like mild menthol content while veteran smokers favored stronger doses for its cooling affect on their throats.

The study's authors believe the market research was a way to aim tobacco products specifically at younger people. Their report, in the American Journal of Public Health, analyzed a 2006 survey of American smokers and found that significantly more adolescent and young adult smokers preferred menthol brands.

Menthol could be added to the proposed FDA list of banned tobacco additives if agency tests determine that it contributes to the health risks of smoking. But so far, there appears to be no conclusive evidence to bolster the argument that menthol cigarettes are more harmful than conventional ones.

However, health advocates note there is some evidence that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting than others. Not surprisingly, tobacco companies don't accept the conclusion of the Harvard study that they manipulated menthol levels to gain market share among adolescents.

In any event, there's no denying that menthol is simply one more way to conceal the harsh taste of a consumer product that sickens or kills its most avid users.

Anything the FDA can do to stop this senseless charade is certainly welcome.

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