The Obama administration has shown that it is willing to consider bold new regulations on tobacco, but a recent study conducted for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was seen as unlikely to give the president enough rhetorical force to ban mentholated cigarettes from U.S. markets.
Unlike a prior FDA report that gave the administration cause to ban "light" and candy-flavored cigarettes, the latest report does not call for new regulations. It does say, however, that banning menthols would improve the nation's overall health and reduce costs from tobacco-related illnesses.
It also cites figures showing youths gravitating toward menthol cigarettes at an alarming rate; and especially minority youths, who seem to prefer menthol cigarettes to other tobacco blends. The study found that 80 percent of black children between the ages of 12-17 who smoke cigarettes were smoking menthols. For Latino smokers of the same age, the FDA said that over 50 percent smoke menthols.
The report also showed that smoking cigarettes is the number one cause of preventable death in the U.S. today, but it did not specify how menthols carry a heavier risk than other tobacco. It also failed to show that trying a menthol can pose a greater threat of addiction.
The tobacco industry had objected to the potential for banning menthol smokes, claiming it would simply create a black market for them. The FDA's report agreed, citing the dangers of unregulated markets and the likelihood that new regulations would create one.
Tobacco regulations signed in 2009, which took effect late last year, barred tobacco company sponsorship of athletic, musical or cultural events, restricted distribution of free samples and prohibited sales of cigarettes or smokeless tobacco to people younger than 18.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 19.5 percent of U.S. high school students said they had smoked cigarettes in 2009. That figure was down nearly 15 percent over the prior decade.
Lorillard, the nation's oldest tobacco company which derives the vast majority of its financing from sales of Newport cigarettes, saw its shares soar 10.6 percent Friday after the FDA's report was filed, closing at $87.11 by end of trading.
Menthol cigarettes make up about 30 percent of all U.S. cigarette sales. The industry saw sales eclipsing $86 billion in 2006, according to the CDC.
The agency added that, accounting for lost productivity and health effects, smoking-related cost amounted to $193 billion in the U.S. from 2000-2004.
Read the FDA's full report (PDF).