Former HEW / HHS Secretaries Want
Menthol Banned As Cigarette Additive
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Seven former federal health secretaries have signed a letter urging that menthol be banned as an ingredient in tobacco products. The pending Family Smoking and Tobacco Control Act ((S.625, H.1108) would:
- Restrict tobacco advertising and promotions, especially to children.
- Stop illegal sales of tobacco products to children.
- Ban candy-flavored cigarettes, which are the primary starter products for young, new smokers. (These flavorings are used to mask the unpleasant taste of inhaled smoke.)
- Require changes in tobacco products, such as the removal of harmful ingredients or the reduction of nicotine levels.
- Prohibit health claims about so-called "reduced risk" products that are not scientifically proven or that would discourage current tobacco users from quitting or encourage new users to start.
- Require tobacco companies to disclose the contents of tobacco products, changes to their products, and research about the health effects of their products.
- Require larger and more informative health warnings on tobacco products.
- Prohibit terms such as "light," "mild," and "low-tar" that suggest that certain cigarettes are safer than others.
As now written, the bills would permit continued use of menthol, which is the most widely used flavoring and is especially popular among African American teens. The letter to Congress (shown below) notes that menthol was excluded to appease Philip Morris, which markets the second-most popular menthol-containing brand (Marlboro Menthol).
June 4, 2008
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act
(S 625 and H 1108) awaiting action by Congress has the potential to advance tobacco control for all Americans—but only if a serious flaw that provides a major win for tobacco companies and abandons African Americans is corrected.
The bill bans the use of all artificial or natural flavors in cigarettes—except menthol. Since menthol is by far the most popular “flavor” for cigarettes, that’s a loophole big enough for a herd of wild animals to romp through and trample the health of African Americans.
Nearly 75 percent of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes. A recent survey found that among teen smokers, 81 percent of African Americans smoke menthol cigarettes compared to only 32 percent of Whites and 45 percent of Hispanics. We also know that 90 percent of adult smokers are hooked as teens.
More than 47,000 blacks die each year from smoking-related diseases and thousands more are crippled by smoking-related ailments. More black women get lung cancer than breast cancer and black men are 50 percent more likely to get lung cancer than white men.
Tobacco companies know that one of the most effective ways to boost sales is to make cigarettes more palatable to first time smokers by disguising the unpleasant taste of inhaled smoke and adding a fresh, minty flavor and cooling effect. They also know that menthol flavoring may make it more difficult for smokers to quit.
African Americans have long been targeted by marketing campaigns for menthol cigarettes. In 1990, the launch of R.J. Reynolds’ menthol-flavored Uptown cigarettes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was planned to coincide with the celebration of Black History Month. One of us (Louis Sullivan), then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, denounced the target marketing of this product. With strong opposition from the public health profession and the African American community, R.J. Reynolds backed down and withdrew Uptown cigarettes from the market.
But, like leopards in the jungle, cigarette companies never change their spots. R.J. Reynolds is test marketing a new product called Camel Crush, a “menthol-on-demand” cigarette where the smoker can bite down on the menthol capsule in the filter to give them anywhere from a small burst to an extreme rush of menthol flavor-–the perfect mask for tobacco’s harsh flavor.
Banning flavored cigarettes, which mask the harshness of tobacco—something that can deter some first-time smokers, especially children—is a positive move. But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans—the segment of our population at greatest risk for the killing and crippling smoking-related diseases. It sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters.
To make the pending tobacco legislation truly effective, menthol cigarettes should be treated the same as other flavored cigarettes. Menthol should be banned so that it no longer serves as a product the tobacco companies can use to lure African American children.
We do everything we can to protect our children in America, especially our white children. It’s time to do the same for all children.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (1977-1979)
This article was posted on June 11, 2008.