Marketing messages for menthol cigarettes disproportionately target youths and are crafted to imply that menthols are safer than other cigarettes, although they are not, according to a newly released draft section of a long awaited FDA advisory committee's report.
While direct claims of menthol cigarettes' health benefits dwindled after the 1950s, marketing materials continue to depict menthols as "refreshing" and "soothing," while use of the colour green on menthol packaging implies "nature" and healthfulness, according to the report.
"Analyses of tobacco industry internal documents and marketing messages the industry produced provide corroborating evidence of explicit and unwarranted claims that smoking menthol cigarettes would improve smokers' health," according to the draft report.
"Over time, marketing messages increasingly relied on sensory descriptors and imagery to imply that menthol cigarettes are safer than non-menthol cigarettes," the report noted.
Menthol smokes seen as 'smooth'
While contemporary tobacco marketing efforts have been "constrained by legislation that restricts advertising in traditional media," the draft report continued, "the powerful advertising messages used in the past are reinforced and continued by menthol marketing messages such as 'smooth' and 'fresh' that are implicitly linked to health benefits".
The Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is tasked with determining how menthol cigarettes should be regulated and whether the science justifies an outright ban.
Sections of the report released earlier have concluded that the evidence doesn't prove menthol cigarettes are any more dangerous to health than other cigarettes, but that it is possible they are more addictive because the mint flavouring masks the harsh tobacco taste.
Many anti-smoking organisations hope the FDA will eventually ban menthols.
"Menthols should be banned, and that such a decision would be, in the words of the statute, 'appropriate for the protection of the public health'," said Ellen Vargyas, general counsel for the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organisation that was founded in 1999 with funding from the landmark Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and state governments.
"We think there are two key scientific underpinnings," Vargyas continued. "One is the link between menthol smoking and youth initiation. The science shows the younger and the newer the smoker the more likely they are to smoke menthols. The second very important reason is the science shows they make more quit attempts than non-menthol smokers, but they are less successful at quitting."
Menthol the most popular flavour
The efforts to more stringently regulate tobacco products come as a the result of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law by President Obama in June 2009. The law gave the FDA broad new powers to regulate the sale, marketing and content of tobacco products and directed the FDA to establish an advisory committee to review the science and make recommendations.
The law banned fruit and candy-like flavourings from cigarettes, but exempted menthol, by far the most popular flavour. Menthol accounts for 27% of all cigarettes sold in the United States in 2009, according to the FDA's report.
Instead, menthol became the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee's (TPSAC) first order of business.
The advisory committee is made up of nine voting members including physicians, scientists and public health experts. The tobacco industry is represented by three, non-voting members.
Among the questions the committee is considering: Are menthol cigarettes more harmful than regular cigarettes? Does the mint flavour encourage youth to start smoking? Are cigarettes containing menthol harder to quit?
The important questions
Although the advisory committee has said the science doesn't show that menthols are more dangerous to health, that's not the most important question, said Vargyas, of the American Legacy Foundation. The foundation's mission includes making smoking prevention and cessation programmes widely available.
"The tobacco industry wants to answer a particular question: Are menthol cigarettes more dangerous to individual established smokers? The answer to that question is that the scientific evidence does not establish that menthol carries greater risks for the individual, established smoker," Vargyas said. "The more important question is the impact of menthol on initiation and cessation."
When the committee's conclusions are released, which is expected to occur by March 23, menthol regulation will enter into a lengthy rule-making process, in which the FDA would begin crafting a proposed rule and the public and the tobacco industry would be given time to weigh in.
One of the suggested tactics for making cigarettes less addictive is to prohibit nicotine in cigarettes. According to the tobacco control law, the FDA cannot reduce levels to zero, but it may be able to sharply curtail nicotine.
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