Cigarette makers have effective bait for hooking smokers. It’s minty fresh.
A new review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concludes that the menthol flavoring that comes from mint makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.
The lure has been attractive to young smokers, particularly African Americans. According to a 2004 study, more than three-quarters of black adolescent and young-adult smokers prefer the Newport brand of menthol cigarettes.
And while the percentage of Americans who smoke has been declining for decades, smoking rates among 18- to 25-year-olds have been climbing, from 13 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2010, based on a 2011 federal report.
The report also said that from 2007 to 2010, 52 percent of new smokers used menthol cigarettes — an increase from 42 percent in the 2004-06 period.
Yet menthol was excluded from a 2009 FDA ban on flavored cigarettes, which took strawberry, chocolate, and other varieties off the market. The sweet cigarettes were a targeted appeal to young customers, but Congress gave menthol a break unless the FDA determined that its use presented a particular risk beyond the cancer, emphysema, and other ailments that are associated with smoking unflavored cigarettes.
The new review’s conclusion doesn’t go that far. But it still offers strong evidence that menthol is dangerous because of the way in which it pulls new customers into the deadly cigarette market.
The folly of excluding menthol cigarettes from the flavor ban has backfired in another way. Last year, the World Trade Organization ruled that the U.S. ban, by exempting menthol cigarettes, violated the trade rights of Indonesia, which makes clove cigarettes that are banned.
It’s not clear how that discrepancy will be resolved. The best way would be to extend the ban so that menthol cigarettes are excluded from the U.S. market.
Despite improvements, tobacco use remains the nation’s leading cause of preventable death and disease. Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes would help keep new customers from getting hooked on an unhealthy habit.