Big Tobacco’s menthol addiction

By: - July 1, 2008 10:58 am

 The Congressional Black Caucus should be commended, and assisted, in seeking to ban menthol in cigarettes as part of a tobacco-regulation bill currently in the House.

 For years, tobacco companies have targeted menthol advertising at African Americans including the aborted launch by R.J. Reynolds of Uptown cigarettes to coincide with Black History Month in 1989. In a press release issued at the time, RJR’s vice president of strategic marketing said, “Black smokers show a strong preference for menthol brands.”

 A New York Times article on the topic notes that 75 percent of black smokers prefer mentholated cigarettes.

 The bill in front of Congress would ban candy, fruit, and spice flavored cigarettes, according to the Times, but would exempt menthol.

 One of the primary pushers of the menthol exemption is Greensboro-based tobacco manufacturer Lorillard, which recently spun out from its parent company Loews.

 Lorillard most likely considers the menthol exemption a fight for its life. In securities filings the company says that it has sold off international rights to all of its brands, so it is not able to make up for losses in the domestic cigarette market.

 Also, Newport, the nation’s best-selling menthol cigarette, accounts for almost 94 percent of Lorillard’s sales revenue.

 The problem is not only that menthol cigarettes are marketed at African Americans and that flavored tobacco products are attractive to young smokers. As Lorillard notes in its filings: “Some plaintiffs and other sources, including among others, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have claimed that mentholated cigarettes may pose greater health risks than non-mentholated cigarettes.”

 Allowing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products would be a step forward for public health. But the menthol exemption is an enormous loophole, and one that threatens to increase health disparities across the country.

 With so much money riding on the future of menthol, the Congressional Black Caucus is showing real backbone to stand up against the tobacco interests. More legislators should follow suit.

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