Letter From Former HHS Secretaries Urges Congress To Ban Menthol Flavoring in Cigarettes
Seven former HHS secretaries and two other individuals have sent a letter to members of Congress asking lawmakers to add menthol to the list of flavorings that would be banned under a bill (HR 1108/S 625) to give FDA authority to regulate tobacco, the New York Times reports. Three out of four black smokers use menthol-flavored cigarettes; menthol is the most widely used flavoring in cigarettes. According to the letter, 80% of black teens who smoke use menthol brands.
Menthol, which is derived from mint and also is available in synthetic form, "can help mask the harsh taste of tobacco," the Times reports.
While the bill would not ban menthol as an additive to cigarettes, it would ban cigarettes with strawberry, chocolate and other fruit, candy and spice flavorings -- additives that some say aim to entice children to smoke, the Times reports.
The former secretaries' letter states that the bill's exemption of menthol from the list of banned flavorings "caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African-Americans -- the segment of our population at greatest risk for the killing and crippling of smoking-related diseases. It sends a message that African-American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters."
Those who signed the letter are:
- Joseph Califano, HHS secretary under President Carter;
- F. David Matthews, HHS secretary under the Ford administration;
- Julius Richmond, surgeon general in the Carter administration;
- William Robinson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, which has withdrawn its support of the bill;
- Donna Shalala, HHS secretary under the Clinton administration;
- Louis Sullivan, HHS secretary under President George H.W. Bush; and
- Tommy Thompson, HHS secretary under the George W. Bush administration.
Lawmakers have said that the menthol exemption was included to help win the support of Phillip Morris, which makes Marlboro Menthol, the second-leading menthol brand. Phillip Morris has endorsed the bill, but other tobacco companies are against it. In addition, most major public health advocacy groups have given their support to the bill, though some other groups have expressed concerns that the bill would not do enough to regulate the tobacco industry or promote safer tobacco products.
Anti-smoking advocates who support the bill say that it would allow FDA to limit or eliminate additives, including menthol, if they are deemed harmful. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), sponsor of the House version of the bill, said, "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 we are dealing with this issue in the most effective way possible."
He added, "I'm determined to see tobacco legislation pass Congress that protects all our children."
Califano, chair of the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, said that while the bill would allow FDA to potentially eliminate menthol as an added flavoring, it would be a process that "could go on and on and on, and you're talking about years before you get through the administrative process and courts."
Sullivan -- who was part of an effort to push R.J. Reynolds to stop marketing its Uptown cigarette, a menthol product aimed at black smokers -- said, "My issue is that menthol should not be added because it's added as an inducement, an enabler, to induce young people to smoke."
Key House and Senate committees have approved the legislation, but it is not yet scheduled for floor votes (Saul, New York Times, 6/5).
The letter is available online. This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.