The mint flavoring of menthol cigarettes make them easier to start smoking and harder to quit, a new Food and Drug Administration report found, moving the agency a step closer to a decision on whether to institute a ban.
Menthol was exempted from a ban on flavored cigarettes by Congress in 2009, and since, the FDA has fielded calls to determine if it poses enough danger to merit additional regulation.
About a third of cigarettes sold in the U.S. are menthol and are particularly popular among black smokers.
Opponents of smoking have been frustrated with what they say is heel-dragging by the FDA, especially after a 2011 study found menthol to have a negative effect on health.
“This is either a way to take the heat off, or the beginning of a meaningful process,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “That’s the book the jury is still out on.”
The study found no additional risk of disease in menthol cigarettes, but contributed to addiction and dependence.
Lorillard, the nation's largest menthol cigarette manufacturer, insisted the menthol posed no additional threat, and said "the best available science demonstrates that menthol cigarettes have the same health effects as nonmenthol cigarettes and should be treated no differently."
While smoking overall has declined in the past decade, the mellowing effect of the mint flavor in menthol cigarettes make them more palatable to first-time smokers. A 2011 federal report found rates for smoking menthol cigarettes had increased from 13 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2010.
The FDA said it planned additional research, as well as a comment period, before it would make any decisions on regulating menthol cigarettes.
“The bottom line is, we need more information,” said Mitchell Zeller, director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products. “We also need input from the public.”
"The FDA is a regulatory agency,” Zeller said. “As a regulatory agency, we can only go as far as the regulatory science will take us.”