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US: Opposition to Menthol Cigarettes Grows

by STEPHANIE SAULThe New York Times
June 5th, 2008

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.

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