Removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health because the minty flavoring has led to an increase in smokers and makes quitting harder, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel said Friday.
The agency's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee stopped short of recommending an outright ban. The FDA should consider other factors, the advisers said, including that a ban could increase counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes.
Panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. The agency doesn't have to follow their recommendations but often does. Many analysts believe it won't ban menthol, which about 19 million Americans smoke.
"We just think this is too much of a political hot potato," said Ira Loss, an analyst with Washington Analysis who has covered the agency for three decades.
Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, signaled a ban is not a sure thing. While there is no timeline for the agency to act, the FDA intends to provide a progress report in about 90 days.
"I need to be very clear. The report does not set FDA policy, does not set FDA actions," Deyton said. "Receipt of the final report will not have direct, immediate effect on the availability of menthol products."
While the panel said menthol smokers are not likely to be at a higher risk of disease or exposed to a greater number of toxins, menthol cigarettes make it more likely for certain groups like youth and African-Americans to experiment with smoking and make it harder for them to quit.
A menthol ban or other restrictions on the flavored cigarettes would fall heavily on Lorillard Inc., whose Newport brand is the top-selling menthol cigarette in the U.S., with roughly 35 percent of the market. Menthol cigarettes are one of the few growth areas in a shrinking cigarette market.
Lorillard, the country's third-largest tobacco company, is based in Greensboro, N.C.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lorillard CEO Murray Kessler said the committee's conclusions lack balance and believes the panel's report is only a first step in a "very long process" that won't result in a ban.