Killer menthol: The FDA must curb the gateway cigarette flavor

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Cigarette manufacturers have very effective bait for catching new smokers. It's mint.

A review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released last week concluded 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 young blacks. According to a 2004 study, more than three-quarters of black adolescent and young adult smokers use Newport, a menthol cigarette.

And although the percentage of Americans who smoke has been declining for decades, smoking rates among 18-to-25-year-olds has been climbing, from 13 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2010, based on a 2011 federal report. It also said that, from 2007 to 2010, 52 percent of new smokers used menthol cigarettes, an increase from 42 percent in the period from 2004 to 2006.

Unfortunately, menthol was excluded from a 2009 Food and Drug Administration ban on flavored cigarettes, which took strawberry, chocolate and other varieties off the U.S. market. The sweet cigarettes were a targeted appeal to young customers, but Congress gave menthol a break unless the FDA subsequently determined that its use presented a particular risk beyond the cancer, emphysema and countless other ailments associated with smoking unflavored cigarettes.

The review's conclusion didn't go that far, but it nonetheless offered strong evidence that menthol is dangerous because of how it pulls new customers into the deadly cigarette market.

The folly of excluding mint-flavored menthol cigarettes from the ban has backfired in another way, too. The World Trade Organization ruled last year that the U.S. ban that included clove cigarettes but exempted menthols violated the trade rights of Indonesia, which makes clove cigarettes. It's not yet clear how that discrepancy will be resolved.

The best way would be to extend the ban on flavors so that menthol cigarettes are excluded from the U.S. market. Despite improvements, tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the nation. Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes would be an effective way to keep new customers from taking the bait and getting hooked on an unhealthy habit.

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