Asking the wrong questions about menthol

An FDA panel is currently holding hearings to determine whether the agency should forbid the sale of menthol cigarettes. The Tobacco Control Act signed in 2009 banned other flavorings that made up an insignificant part of the cigarette market but exempted menthol, which accounts for about a third of US cigarette sales, to win the support of Philip Morris. If the FDA moves forward to ban menthol Philip Morris may find that its support was terribly short-sighted.

The questions addressed by the panel are nominally scientific: Are menthol cigarettes more addictive than regular cigarettes? Does menthol “mask” the harsh taste of tobacco? Anti-smoking activists say yes, tobacco executives say no, but the debate is all for show. In fact, no one claims that menthol is itself addictive. It’s a perfectly safe flavoring that’s used in everything from dental products to chewing gum. At worst, it may somewhat increase the body’s nicotine uptake. Cigarette companies add it to their products for the same reason that toothpaste companies add it to theirs: It tastes good, it’s soothing, and consumers demand it.

Because many consumers prefer mentholated cigarettes, one can claim that menthols are harder to quit or encourage more people to take up smoking. However this is not the same as showing that they are more “addictive.” By that standard, anything companies add to their products to increase their appeal to consumers would make them addictive. Menthol “masks” the harsh taste of tobacco in the same that milk and sugar mask the bitter taste of Starbucks coffee or barrel aging masks the bite of white dog whiskey. If menthol cigarettes are more dangerous than regular cigarettes, it’s simply because people like smoking them more.

Indeed, as tobacco expert Michael Siegel explains, there’s no logical difference between menthol and the hundreds of other flavor additives put into cigarettes:

For example, R.J. Reynolds readily acknowledges that it uses brown sugar to “enhance tobacco product quality by balancing sensory attributes and developing certain desired taste and/or flavor characteristics,” and that additives such as butyl alcohol, ethyl vanillin, ethyl phenylacetate, and methyl dihydrojasmonate are “used to impart or help impart, or enhance or modify, a taste or aroma” in some of its cigarettes. This is precisely the same function that R.J. Reynolds cites as the reason for the addition of menthol to some of its cigarette brands. There are literally hundreds of flavorings used by tobacco companies to enhance the appeal of their products. The criterion established by Congress in banning the use of chocolate, strawberry, and banana – that cigarettes should not contain any flavoring that enhances the product’s appeal to young people – applies equally to the hundreds of other flavors that are added to cigarettes.

Contrary to the claims of anti-smoking activists, the production of menthol cigarettes is not a nefarious plan to hook people (at least, no more than is the production of regular cigarettes). It’s a response to consumer demand for flavor in a product that’s inherently dangerous.

Throughout the FDA’s hearings the most important question gets almost no attention: If a consenting adult wants to smoke a menthol (or clove, or banana…) cigarette, why shouldn’t he or she be allowed to? The agency claims to be concerned for children, but in seeking to ban flavored cigarettes it treats all adults like careless youths. The preferences of consumers are deemed irrelevant; smokers assumed to be dupes or addicts incapable of making their own decisions.

This hearing is, in essence, a debate about whether the FDA should ban a product simply because it is unhealthy and people enjoy it. Once that precedent is set it is a much shorter step to prohibiting cigarette sales entirely.

Bay Area NewsFDAtabacco

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