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FDA Takes a Second Look at Common Cigarette Ingredient Menthol

Jul 24, 2013 03:54 PM EDT

The Food and Drug Administration is giving menthol cigarettes a second look after a recent report linked their use with higher addiction rates as well as higher smoking initiation rates by youth and young adults.

As a longtime ingredient in cigarettes, menthol is often used as a flavor-characterizing additive and appears in approximately 25 percent of all of those sold in the United States. Furthermore, the study found, 40 percent of all youth smokers report using menthol cigarettes.

According to the FDA, the study's findings, "combined with the evidence indicating that menthol's cooling and anesthetic properties can reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke and the evidence indicating that menthol cigarettes are marketed as a smoother alternative to nonmenthol cigarettes, make it likely that menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with nonmenthol cigarettes."

At this point, the agency has issued a call for input during the next 60 days as it seeks to come to a decision about the continued use of the substance in cigarettes.

"Menthol cigarettes raise critical public health questions," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg. "The FDA is committed to a science-based approach that addresses the public health issues raised by menthol cigarettes, and public input will help us make more informed decisions about how best to tackle this important issue moving forward."

Despite decades of work to reduce tobacco use in the United States, it continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease, accounting for some 400,000 deaths every year.

For this reason, the FDA plans on supporting new research on the differences between menthol and non-menthol cigarettes as they relate to the substance's likely impact on smoking cessation and attempts to quit, as well as assessing the levels of menthol in cigarette brands and sub-brands.

Currently, the agency is funding three menthol-related studies, one of which is examining whether genetic differences in taste perceptions explain why certain racial and ethnic populations are more likely to use menthol cigarettes. Another is focused on comparing exposure to smoke-related toxins and carcinogens from menthol and non-menthol cigarettes and the third on the effects of menthol and non-menthol compounds in various tobacco products on both tobacco addiction and toxicants of tobacco smoke.

Finally, the FDA reported that it currently has a youth education campaign underway designed to prevent and reduce tobacco use, including menthol cigarettes.

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