RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The tobacco industry is running a full-court press ahead of a federal scientific panel's meeting to discuss how to regulate menthol cigarettes, a still-growing part of the shrinking cigarette market.
The union representing nearly 4,000 tobacco workers sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration committee examining the public health effects of the minty smokes, warning that a ban could lead to "severe jobs loss" and black market cigarettes.
"These are good, hardworking men and women. ... They are an economic linchpin of the communities in which they live," Frank Hurt, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union wrote in a letter submitted late last month for the panel's second meeting Thursday.
The committee is to make its recommendations to the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products by March. The 12-member panel includes three nonvoting members representing the tobacco industry.
While most believe a ban is unlikely, several companies also are voicing their concerns in their 100-plus page submissions to the panel, which will hear industry presentations on how menthol is used in cigarettes, health effects, marketing efforts, and impacts on specific groups of people.
In their submissions to the panel, the nation's top three cigarette makers, Philip Morris USA parent Altria Group Inc., Reynolds American Inc., and Lorillard Inc. all said scientific evidence does not show that menthol cigarettes create greater health risk than non-menthol cigarettes.
Lorillard, which holds about 35 percent share of the U.S menthol cigarette market with its top-selling Newport brand, even launched a website late last month explaining the company's position, the science that is under review by a the committee, and the consequences of a potential ban on menthol cigarettes.
The FDA won the authority last June to regulate tobacco, including banning certain products, limiting nicotine and blocking labels such "low tar" and "light" that could wrongly imply certain products are less harmful.
The law also banned cigarettes with flavors such as clove, chocolate or fruit, because they are believed to appeal to youth. However, menthol smokes were exempt. The FDA could order a reduction of menthol levels, bigger or more descriptive warning labels or higher mandated prices for menthol cigarettes.
The share of smokers using menthol cigarettes increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 33.9 percent in 2008, with more pronounced increases among young smokers, according to a study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in November.
It also showed that among black smokers, 82.6 percent used menthol cigarettes, compared with 32.3 percent for Hispanic smokers and 23.8 percent for white smokers.
But studies vary on menthol's health impacts and whether it plays a large role in enticing people to start smoking.