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FDA Panel Examines Menthol Cigarettes

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The tobacco industry defended its menthol products yesterday in front of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee.

The discussion was part of an initial two-day meeting centered on looking into the effects of menthol in cigarettes. The group is undertaking a year-long project with a report due in March 2011 focused on menthol to help the FDA decide on whether or not to restrict the products, as part of the authority bestowed to the agency last year. However, anti-smoking advocates and industry analysts are skeptical a ban or restriction on menthol products will come to fruition, Reuters reported.

"Overall the weight of scientific evidence indicates menthol does not change the inherent health risks of cigarette smoking," James Dillard, a senior vice president at Altria, which sells menthol versions of Philip Morris USA's Marlboro-brand cigarettes, said in the report.

Michael Ogden, an official with Reynolds American unit R.J. Reynolds, which markets menthol-flavored Camel cigarettes, said: "There is no scientific basis to treat menthol cigarettes differently than regular cigarettes."
And Lorillard Senior Vice President Bill True was cited in the report as saying there was no data to show that youth smoking rates would drop if menthol cigarettes were no longer available.
Government health experts and others on Tuesday told the committee there is mixed information on whether menthol in cigarettes induces people to smoke or makes it harder for them to quit, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Menthol cigarettes account for a third of the roughly $70 billion U.S. cigarette market, the Journal report stated.

Public-health advocates have argued menthol masks the harmful flavors of cigarettes, encourages people to smoke and should be regulated separately from traditional cigarettes.

But the tobacco industry says differently.

"The science is clear and compelling that there is no differing health risk between menthol and non-menthol products," Lorillard's True in a statement cited by the paper.

Allison C. Hoffman, a scientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, presented data to the committee showing what she called an "important indicator of addiction" -- that menthol smokers usually have their first cigarette within 19 minutes of waking up, compared with approximately 37 minutes for smokers of traditional cigarettes.

However, she cited studies that found menthol users had a harder time quitting smoking, while also citing other information that concluded otherwise, the newspaper reported.

Joshua Rising, a scientist from the FDA's tobacco division, cited some decade-old ads showing healthy and fit people smoking menthol, which he said may mislead people into believing menthol products are safer than traditional cigarettes.

Determining which studies are relevant is one difficulty the panel faces, according to its chair, Jonathan Samet. The challenge continued as tobacco companies began submitting and presenting information to the panel yesterday, with Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris unit, maker of Marlboro menthol products, expected to present.

Reynolds American spokesman David Howard told Reuters the company would participate in the menthol review and "believed that collaboration and open dialogue is the best approach."

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