Arbiters of Taste

Menthol cigarette ban


The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over tobacco products, banned almost all varieties of flavored cigarettes. The one exception was menthol cigarettes, which account for about a third of the U.S. market. A June report suggests that the FDA may be preparing to close that loophole.

The FDA, which is seeking public comment on how it should regulate menthol, found no evidence that menthol brands such as Kool and Newport are any more toxic than other cigarettes, but it worried that the cool, minty flavor makes them more appealing to beginning smokers and harder to give up. Menthol cigarettes are especially popular among teenaged smokers, 40 percent of whom prefer them (compared to 30 percent of adults), and among black smokers. The FDA cited evidence that menthol smokers are more strongly attached to their habit: They are more likely to light up within five minutes of waking and less likely to quit smoking.

Critics of the tobacco control law argue that the menthol exception was designed for the benefit of Philip Morris, a leading maker of menthol cigarettes that supported the legislation. Some also claim, rather less plausibly, that it's racist to let African Americans buy the cigarettes they prefer.