06/07/08: Menthol Men
Senators Obama and McCain:
We were reading the other day about the tobacco legislation you both support that is making it's way through Congress.
The bill would give the federal government the authority to regulate tobacco.
And it would ban flavored cigarettes - like strawberry and chocolate.
Flavoring makes tobacco smoke more attractive - especially to young people.
So, we agree - flavoring should be banned from cigarettes.
Here's the curious thing, though.
Under the bill, all flavorings would be banned.
Except for menthol.
Menthol cigarettes make up fully a quarter of the more than 375 billion cigarettes consumed in the United States every year.
And 75 percent of African-Americans who smoke smoke menthol cigarettes.
We know you've both been busy on the campaign trail.
So, maybe you missed it last week when a bipartisan group of seven former secretaries of health sent you and other members of Congress a letter protesting the menthol loophole and demanding that menthol be banned along with all other flavorings.
Citing studies that show that an estimated 80 percent of African-American teenage smokers pick menthol brands, former health secretary Joseph Califano said that the menthol loophole was "clearly putting black children in the back of the bus."
The letter that was sent to you says that the loophole "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 smoking-related diseases."
"It sends a message that African-American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters."
Just wanted to make sure you saw this letter.
Text of Letter to Senators on Menthol Exemption for
The Honorable ___________
Dear Senator __________:
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act
(S 625 and H 1108) awaiting action by Congress has the potential to advance tobacco control for all Americans—but only if a serious flaw that provides a major win for tobacco companies and abandons African Americans is corrected.
The bill bans the use of all artificial or natural flavors in cigarettes—except menthol. Since menthol is by far the most popular “flavor” for cigarettes, that’s a loophole big enough for a herd of wild animals to romp through and trample the health of African Americans.
Nearly 75 percent of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes. A recent survey found that among teen smokers, 81 percent of African Americans smoke menthol cigarettes compared to only 32 percent of Whites and 45 percent of Hispanics. We also know that 90 percent of adult smokers are hooked as teens.
More than 47,000 blacks die each year from smoking-related diseases and thousands more are crippled by smoking-related ailments. More black women get lung cancer than breast cancer and black men are 50 percent more likely to get lung cancer than white men.
Tobacco companies know that one of the most effective ways to boost sales is to make cigarettes more palatable to first time smokers by disguising the unpleasant taste of inhaled smoke and adding a fresh, minty flavor and cooling effect. They also know that menthol flavoring may make it more difficult for smokers to quit.
African Americans have long been targeted by marketing campaigns for menthol cigarettes. In 1990, the launch of R.J. Reynolds’ menthol-flavored Uptown cigarettes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was planned to coincide with the celebration of Black History Month. One of us (Louis Sullivan), then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, denounced the target marketing of this product. With strong opposition from the public health profession and the African American community, R.J. Reynolds backed down and withdrew Uptown cigarettes from the market.
But, like leopards in the jungle, cigarette companies never change their spots. R.J. Reynolds is test marketing a new product called Camel Crush, a “menthol-on-demand” cigarette where the smoker can bite down on the menthol capsule in the filter to give them anywhere from a small burst to an extreme rush of menthol flavor-–the perfect mask for tobacco’s harsh flavor.
Banning flavored cigarettes, which mask the harshness of tobacco--something that can deter some first-time smokers, especially children--is a positive move. But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill 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 smoking-related diseases. It sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters.
To make the pending tobacco legislation truly effective, menthol cigarettes should be treated the same as other flavored cigarettes. Menthol should be banned so that it no longer serves as a product the tobacco companies can use to lure African American children.
We do everything we can to protect our children in America, especially our white children. It’s time to do the same for all children.
And the New York Times article about the letter.
June 5, 2008
Seven former federal health secretaries joined on Wednesday to protest menthol’s special treatment in a tobacco bill pending in Congress.
The seven, from Democratic and Republican administrations, faxed a letter to members of the Senate and House of Representatives demanding that menthol-flavored cigarettes be banned just like various other cigarette flavorings the legislation would outlaw.
One of the former secretaries, Joseph A. Califano Jr., said the legislation was “clearly putting black children in the back of the bus.” He was referring to menthol cigarettes as being the choice of three out of four black smokers and being frequently preferred by young smokers.
An estimated 80 percent of African-American teenage smokers pick menthol brands, the letter said.
The letter reflects a growing controversy over the bill’s current exemption of menthol from a list of banned flavorings — an exemption some lawmakers said was intended to garner support from Philip Morris. The maker of Marlboro Menthol, the second-leading menthol brand after Lorillard’s Newport, Philip Morris has endorsed the bill, although most other cigarette companies oppose it.
The bill would for the first time give the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco. While several groups have said the bill does not go far enough to regulate the tobacco industry and fails to promote safer tobacco products, most major public health advocacy groups have endorsed it.
Some antismoking advocates have said they see the menthol exemption as a necessary compromise toward getting the legislation passed, and they have said that the bill as currently drafted would give the F.D.A. the authority to limit or eliminate additives, including menthol, if they are proved to be harmful.
As now written the legislation would ban cigarettes flavored with strawberry, chocolate and a number of other fruit, candy and spice flavorings. Those flavorings have occasionally been added to cigarettes in what critics say are a lure to children. But the bill specifically protects menthol from the ban, even though menthol is the most widely used flavoring. Menthol brands account for 28 percent of the $70 billion American cigarette market.
The bill has cleared key committees in both the Senate and the House but it is not yet scheduled for floor votes.
Responding to the letter from the former secretaries, the bill’s House sponsor, Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said Wednesday that he believes an outright ban on menthol is not the best way to address it.
“I’m determined to see tobacco legislation pass Congress that protects all our children,” Mr. Waxman said. “Leading public health experts have told us that giving F.D.A. 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. I’ll continue our ongoing review to make sure we are dealing with this issue in the most effective way possible."
Menthol is derived from mint and is also available synthetically. Smoking menthol-flavored cigarettes gives the mouth a cool feeling, similar to sucking on a peppermint, and can help mask the harsh taste of tobacco.
The bill’s treatment of menthol “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 smoking-related diseases,” the letter from the former secretaries said. “It sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters.”
Mr. Califano said that even though the bill gives the F.D.A. the authority to remove additives it would require a lengthy process that “could go on and on and on, and you’re talking about years before you get through the administrative process and the courts.”
Mr. Califano, who served as health secretary under President Jimmy Carter, said the idea to send the letter began when Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the health secretary during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, called him to complain about the bill’s treatment of menthol.
“We both got our blood boiling,” Mr. Califano said in a telephone interview. They also decided to contact other past health secretaries. Five of them were reached and all agreed to sign onto the letter, according to Mr. Califano, who now runs the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
They are Tommy G. Thompson, who was a health secretary under the current President Bush; Donna E. Shalala, from the Clinton administration; Richard S. Schweicker and Dr. Otis R. Bowen, from the Reagan administration; and F. David Matthews from the Ford administration.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Sullivan, the president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, 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.”
In 1990, Dr. Sullivan was instrumental in pressuring R. J. Reynolds not to market its Uptown cigarette, a menthol brand intended to appeal to black smokers.
In addition to the former secretaries, two other people signed the letter. They were Dr. Julius B. Richmond, who served as surgeon general in the Carter administration, and William S. Robinson, the executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, a nonprofit organization in Durham, N.C.
Mr. Robinson’s organization said last week that it was withdrawing its support from the bill because of the menthol exemption.
We also noticed that the National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network at first supported the legislation, but now opposes it because of the lethal menthol loophole.
So, here's to the hope that both of you will be able to make a change we can all believe in.
What say you to the youth of America?
The Nader Team