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Banning Flavored Tobacco - Why Not Menthol?

May 20, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

The New York Times ran an excellent article about a monumental bill to regulate the tobacco industry that Congress is set to consider:

>Some public health experts are questioning why menthol, the most widely used cigarette flavoring and the most popular cigarette choice of African-American smokers, is receiving special protection as Congress tries to regulate tobacco for the first time.
>The legislation, which would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to oversee tobacco products, would try to reduce smoking’s allure to young people by banning most flavored cigarettes, including clove and cinnamon.
>But those new strictures would exempt menthol — even though menthol masks the harsh taste of cigarettes for beginners and may make it harder for the addicted to kick the smoking habit. For years, public health authorities have worried that menthol might be a factor in high cancer rates in African-Americans.
>“My recollection is that we were able to eliminate the use of flavored cigarettes, strawberry, mocha, and all this stuff that is clearly targeted at young kids and to start them smoking tobacco,” Mike DeWine, the former Ohio senator who helped arrange a series of negotiations between Philip Morris and an influential antismoking group, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a recent telephone interview. “Where the compromise was made as I recall was on menthol,” Mr. DeWine said.

A former official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is quoted in the article as saying, “I think we can say definitively that menthol induces smoking in the African-American community and subsequently serves as a direct link to African-American death and disease.” The evidence seems strong – though Phillip Morris scientists have published a scientific review seeking to counter it.

This strikes me as the kind of policy decision that Lawrence Lessig has been talking about in his work on corruption. Banning menthol along with the other flavors seems like an easy question – just like the the flavors, menthol cigarettes mask the harshness of tobacco and constitute a serious public health risk – but, because of the enormous influence of corporate interest and money, Congress may get the question wrong. The tobacco lobby is notoriously influential, and Phillip Morris’ parent company, the Altria Group, is by far the largest contributor to members of Congress’ political campaigns.

And the fact that Phillip Morris is willing to accept some regulation isn’t surprising if you look at what the’yre getting out of the deal. The paragraphs below suggest that they have brokered a bill that allows their menthol cigarettes to stay on their course of becoming the country’s leading brand and protects their position as the industry leader for regular flavored cigarettes:

>A tobacco company spokesman, Brendan J. McCormick, said menthol was “an ingredient and a flavor preference that is widely preferred by more than a quarter of adult smokers out there, and it’s got a long history of use.”
>Mr. McCormick works for the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, whose Marlboro Menthol is the second-largest menthol brand in this country and also the fastest growing.
>Its support of the tobacco legislation has put Philip Morris at odds with other cigarette companies, which generally oppose regulation. As the American industry’s biggest player, Philip Morris says it is willing to let the F.D.A. oversee tobacco because as the company tries to develop products that are less harmful, it wants a regulatory agency to evaluate and approve those products. The company also says it would prefer national tobacco regulations rather than a hodgepodge of state and local rules. But the company’s rivals complain that the legislation could help Philip Morris, with its best-selling Marlboro franchise, further entrench itself as the industry’s dominant player by placing new restrictions on cigarette marketing, making it difficult for rivals to use advertising to catch up. Besides banning the marketing of cigarettes on the basis of most flavorings — other than menthol — the new rules would also place additional limits on the types and placement of signs and magazine advertising for tobacco products.

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