An advisory panel began weighing the effects of menthol flavouring in cigarettes as part of the US government's new powers over the tobacco industry.
Smoked by about 19 million Americans, minty menthol cigarettes are under attack from health advocates who say the taste can be more enticing and possibly addicting than regular cigarettes.
At the start of a two-day public meeting, a committee of outside experts that advises the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began hearing evidence of menthol's impact on smokers' use and health. The panel is due to issue a report by March 2011.
The FDA could eventually ban or phase out menthol cigarettes, although some anti-smoking advocates and industry analysts are skeptical that will happen.
"Clearly the issues won't all be easy," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the panel, which also will tackle the use of dissolvable tobacco products, among other issues, at future meetings.
The 2009 law that gave the FDA oversight of tobacco products banned other cigarette flavours such as chocolate, clove and fruit that could entice children. But Congress exempted menthol, the most popular flavouring with about 27% of the cigarette market, and instead called for an FDA review.
Officials from the manufacturers of menthol cigarettes were expected to speak to the panel on Wednesday.
The FDA advisory committee is a 12-member panel that includes three nonvoting industry representatives. A second panel meeting is set for summer and will include an analysis of industry documents. - (Lisa Richwine/Reuters Health, March 2010)