Two years ago, Congress passed a law which tasked the FDA to regulate tobacco products. The legislation required the agency to ban cigarettes flavored with candy, fruit or spices because they might prompt younger people to start smoking. But the law punted a decision on the thornier issue of whether to ban menthol flavored cigarettes–which account for 30% of domestic cigarette sales–to the FDA.
To help the FDA decide this matter, Congress established Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. The committee’s final report on menthol cigarettes is due by the end of March. It could recommend an outright ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes, or that certain restrictions be placed on advertising these brands. Or it could recommend that the FDA take no action whatsoever.
Sometime after that, FDA will make a final call on the matter. Its decision will have a huge impact on Lorillard, the nation’s third largest cigarette manufacturer, since nearly 90% of its revenues are derived from the sale of Newport, a menthol-flavored cigarette.
Menthol is a naturally-occurring chemical that comes from mint plants. Manufacturers have added it to cigarettes for nearly a century, presumably because its local anesthetic effects and cooling sensations mask the harsh taste of cigarette smoke. The effect seems to attract young smokers in particular. A 2009 government study has shown for example, that nearly half of all smokers between the ages of 12 and 17 use menthol-flavored cigarettes.
Menthol cigarettes are also the overwhelming choice of African-American smokers. Government studies have shown that as many as 80% of African-American smokers prefer these brands, particularly Salem, Kool and Newport. Cigarette manufacturers have directed marketing campaigns for menthol cigarettes toward African-Americans for decades (see above picture).
Lorillard has mounted a vigorous public relations campaign to influence the FDA decision on the matter. It has argued that menthols are no more addictive than regular varieties, and that there are few studies suggesting that menthol smokers have a higher risk of smoking-related illnesses (although one large study does suggest male menthol cigarette smokers have a higher risk of lung cancer).
Beyond this, Lorillard has enlisted support from prominent African-Americans and launched a sophisticated social media campaign, including the use of Twitter and Facebook, to disseminate an anti-ban message.
Several months ago for example, Lorillard’s Twitter account linked to an editorial that appeared on Afro.com, an African-American news website. The article quoted Jessie Lee, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. In the article, Lee expressed concern that a menthol ban would create black market for menthol cigarettes that “could burden our law enforcement systems.”
Another anti-ban advocate is Harry Alford, chief executive of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. “African-Americans like their Newport cigarettes, and there is no reason why they should not be allowed to have them,” Alford wrote.
Lorillard executives sit on the NBCC’s public-policy council, and the company pays $35,000 per year in dues to the NBCC. The 2 organizations work together on “issues of common interest,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
We’ll follow this story with interest. Those stats about the nation’s youngest smokers preferring menthol cigarettes constitute a powerful rationale for an outright ban, since cigarette marketing to kids is already illegal. Stay tuned.