The Slatest

Is the FDA Finally Gearing Up to Ban Menthol Cigarettes?

A man smokes a menthol cigarette in front of a Quick Stop store on March 30, 2010 in Miami.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The FDA on Tuesday released its own scientific review that found the mint flavoring in menthol cigarettes makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit—a small and uncertain step toward eventually banning the popular flavored cigarettes in the United States. The New York Times offers up the back story on menthols, which account for roughly one of every four cigarettes smoked in this country:

The move is likely to please smoking opponents, who have been calling for F.D.A. action on menthol cigarettes. … Still, it was only an intermediate step in what advocates say has been a prolonged process. Many expected the agency to act on menthol in 2011 after a Congressionally mandated committee of outside experts, convened by the F.D.A., found that menthol had a negative effect on public health.

The federal government has been exploring stricter menthol regulation for years, at least since 2009 when Congress voted to ban all tobacco flavoring with the notable except of menthols. That decision, in turn, angered the World Trade Organization, seeing as the ban included clove cigarettes that are produced in Indonesia but not American-made menthols.

Health advocates aren’t quite sure what to make of today’s news, which comes one day before the United States had to comply with a WTO ruling on the matter. “This is either a way to take the heat off, or the beginning of a meaningful process,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Times. “That’s the book the jury is still out on.”

Up next will be a public comment period on potential menthol regulation, likely followed by a string of more bureaucratic tape. “The F.D.A. is a regulatory agency,” the director of the drug agency’s Center for Tobacco Products, Mitchell Zeller, told reporters.* “As a regulatory agency we can only go as far as the regulatory science will take us.”

*Correction Wednesday, July 24: An earlier version of this post mistakenly suggested that Mitchell Zeller was the commissioner of the FDA. He is the director of the agency’s Center for Tobacco Products.