Despite evidence that menthol cigarettes are a significant factor in the rise of smoking among adolescents, a federal advisory panel on Friday stopped short of recommending a ban on the cigarettes. Instead, it urged further study of the issue, which suggested that the Food and Drug Administration would ultimately pursue more modest action, such as marketing restrictions aimed at reducing access for the young.
The panel’s long-awaited report on menthol cigarettes was met with a collective shrug from several tobacco companies, whose potent political and legal power could delay any new restrictions for years. Tobacco company stock prices rose after the committee released its report.
“The market sees little in the FDA panel findings to suggest that an outright ban is likely,” said R.J. Hottovy, director of consumer research for Morningstar Inc., an investment research firm.
The advisory panel laid out a detailed critique of the special dangers posed by menthols, concluding that “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”
Still, it declined to take the most stringent step of recommending that the cigarettes be removed from the markets, leaving that decision to the Food and Drug Administration, which has the final say on what, if any, action is taken.
Research has found that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, claiming 443,000 lives annually and costing $100 billion for medical care and another $100 billion in lost productivity.
But there is potentially strong congressional opposition to a sweeping new regulatory push by the government, especially in the GOP-controlled House, where a majority of Republicans voted against the 2009 legislation granting the FDA authority to regulate tobacco, said Michael Siegel, a Boston University expert on the public health consequences of smoking.
And President Obama may be reluctant to take on another controversial issue at a time when he is fighting to defend his signature healthcare overhaul and engaged in difficult negotiations over the federal deficit and other issues.
“The last thing he needs, politically, is government telling tobacco companies what to put into cigarettes,” Siegel said.