National Black Anti-Tobacco Group To Withdraw Support for Tobacco Regulation Bill Because of Menthol ‘Loophole’
The National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network this week is expected to officially announce its withdrawal of support for legislation that would allow FDA to regulate flavored tobacco products other than menthol cigarettes, according to the group's executive director, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports (Young, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/29).
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and 56 co-sponsors in the Senate, would give FDA the authority to remove addictive additives if they have proven to be harmful. Menthol-flavored products were excluded from the bill; such products represent more than 25% of the $70 billion tobacco market. Without the exclusion, the legislation might not have a chance of passing. The bill would also regulate advertisements and promotions for tobacco products.
Nearly 75% of black smokers use menthol-flavored cigarettes, compared with about one in four white smokers, and the protection given to menthol in the legislation has raised concern from some health experts. Earlier this month, William Robinson, executive director of NAATPN, said that the exclusion was needed for passage of the bill but that the issue could be re-examined in the future (Kaiser Health Disparities Report, 5/13).
Robinson now says that the NAATPN has been concerned about the menthol exclusion in the bill since it officially signed on as a supporter in 2006 but thought that allowing FDA to regulate tobacco was worth the compromise. However, many of the group's constituents have expressed outrage over NAATPN's public support of the bill, he said. "We don't want to be the institution that pushes it and kills the bill," Robinson said, adding, "But we also don't want a bill that's bad."
Louis Sullivan, a former HHS secretary and president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine, said the menthol exclusion "gives the appearance that the lives of black youngsters are valued less than white youngsters," adding, "I feel very strongly there should be an absolute ban on all flavorings." Sullivan said that the menthol controversy might derail what is overall a landmark piece of legislation but noted that he and others are making their views on the bill public out of concern that it fails to protect the health of black smokers. "I'd much rather have a bill that's right than a flawed bill," he said.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the bill's House sponsor, said he will continue to review the menthol provision, adding, "Leading public health experts have told us that giving FDA the authority to ban menthol is the best way to balance both public health considerations with the reality that many adults only smoke menthol cigarettes" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/29).
The Journal-Constitution also examined the results of a study released earlier this year in the journal Ethnicity & Health that found that some blacks prefer menthol cigarettes because they believed the "soothing and smooth" taste made them less harmful than nonmenthol cigarettes. The study of 54 black adult smokers was conducted by CDC researchers to develop a hypothesis for future research.
Some participants viewed nonmenthol cigarettes as "strong or harsh," according to the Journal-Constitution. The study also found that menthol cigarettes sometimes delayed attempts to quit smoking because they were viewed as less harsh and that some participants thought that switching to a nonmenthol brand would be a good way to try quitting (Young , Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/29).
An abstract of the study is available online.