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The Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee of the FDA’s Tobacco Center is continuing public hearings today on the regulation of menthol in cigarettes.

The committee, which held a hearing Thursday as well, is responsible for making recommendations to the agency, which could include banning the use of menthol.

Last year, Congress gave the FDA the power to review health issues related to tobacco products, but not to ban tobacco completely.

Menthol was exempted when other additives and flavorings were banned with enactment of the Family Smoking and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, but with pressure from anti-smoking groups, a provision was added that gave the Food and Drug Administration oversight of tobacco policies, including convening the panel charged with investigating the impact of menthol and mandated to produce a report.

According to the National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network, menthol cigarettes typically have more tar and nicotine than non-mentholated cigarettes; they mask the harshness of tobacco – meaning smokers smoke more, thus inhaling more toxins – and there is research that suggests menthol cigarettes are harder to quit. The tobacco industry used menthol to create “starter” cigarettes to appeal to young, first-time smokers.

Nearly 80 percent of African-Americans who smoke use menthol.

However, Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, challenges the science on whether menthol is actually more addictive and says beyond the health question, there are points that need to be addressed on public policy, civil liberties and the impact of any proposed ban on menthol ultimately could have on small businesses.

“It is no secret that menthol cigarettes provide a distinctive taste that is preferred by some smokers, including many African-Americans. Yet there is no hard scientific evidence that menthol itself is harmful, that menthol creates a greater disease risk, or that menthol makes it easier to start or stop smoking – including among African-American smokers,” Alford wrote in an opinion piece that appeared on BlackNews.com.

“Banning menthol would have real-world ramifications that so far have not been considered by the FDA committee,” said Alford, whose organization represents more than 1.2 million black-owned businesses.

“First and foremost, it would create an illegal market of unsafe, unregulated cigarettes. An extensive underground market already exists for cigarettes, in which cartons are shipped from low-tax states to high-tax states,” Alford maintained. “Law enforcement agencies cannot keep pace with this counterfeiting. If menthol were banned, this illicit market would undoubtedly expand. It is not a stretch to believe that it would be controlled by organized crime. And the worst part is that illegal cigarettes will not be sold in stores where clerks must check to make sure buyers are adults but rather on the internet and on street corners where minors would have easier access to cigarettes.”

Early advertising generally promoted a therapeutic effect from smoking, a sense of calm and relaxation, and menthol was depicted as smoother than regular cigarettes.

Over time, even after the health risks of smoking became better known, “the industry didn’t advertise it as a healthier product, but as a feeling – feel the pleasure, feel the cool. They kept the wording that left the impression (menthol) was easier on the lungs and the throat,” Carla Williams, chairperson of the D.C. Tobacco Free Coalition and an assistant professor of medicine at the Howard University Cancer Center, said in an earlier interview.

Williams said people are aware of the ill-effects of smoking, but many – especially those over 40 – have trouble quitting or they use smoking cessation techniques inconsistently.

“We understand the addictive quality of cigarettes can overwhelm some,” Williams said.

Still, Alford wrote, the jury is out on the deleterious effects of menthol, and he suggested the …..

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