Smoked by about 19 million Americans, minty menthol cigarettes are under attack from health advocates who say the taste can be more enticing and possibly addicting than regular cigarettes.
At the start of a two-day public meeting, a committee of outside experts that advises the Food and Drug Administration began hearing data on menthol's impact on smokers' use and health. The panel is due to issue a report by March 2011.
Menthols account for more than a quarter of cigarette sales and are a top choice among black smokers. A U.S. government survey showed 83 percent of adult black smokers chose menthol, compared with 23 percent of whites.
FDA scientists presented findings to the panel from data stretching back decades in some cases on the health effects, marketing and use of menthol cigarettes.
A key question for the panel is whether menthol lures children or others to pick up a smoking habit more than regular cigarettes. Anti-smoking activists say menthol's mild anesthetic property masks the harshness of tobacco, making it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.
Dr. Joshua Rising, an FDA scientist, said research showed menthol was a more likely choice for younger people just starting to smoke compared with others who had been smoking for at least a year. But limited data do not suggest that menthol cigarettes are associated with an earlier age of initiation, he said.
The FDA could eventually ban or phase out menthol cigarettes, although some anti-smoking advocates and industry analysts are skeptical that will happen. Stronger warnings also are a possibility.
Clearly the issues won't all be easy, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the panel, which also will tackle the use of dissolvable tobacco products and other matters at future meetings. Tuesday's meeting was the panel's first.
Any government action against menthol could be a blow to Lorillard, the nation's third-largest cigarette company and maker of top-selling menthol brand Newport.
The 2009 law that gave the FDA oversight of tobacco products banned other cigarette flavors such as chocolate, clove and fruit that could lure children. But Congress exempted menthol, the most popular flavoring with about 27 percent of the cigarette market, and instead called for an FDA review.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, the chairman of the FDA panel, said the advisers got a first glimpse of the available research and face the challenge of determining which of these studies are relevant to the current questions.
Officials from the manufacturers were expected to speak to the panel on Wednesday. Altria Group Inc's Philip Morris unit sells menthol versions of its Marlboro brand, while Reynolds American markets menthol-flavored Camels.
Lorillard said in a statement there was no evidence menthol cigarettes were more addictive or harmful than others.
The science is clear and compelling that there is no differing health risk between menthol and non-menthol products, Lorillard Senior Vice President Bill True said.
Altria had no comment ahead of the company's presentation to the committee, spokesman William Phelps said.
Reynolds spokesman David Howard said the company would participate in the menthol review and believed that collaboration and open dialogue is the best approach.
The FDA advisory committee is a 12-member panel that includes three nonvoting industry representatives. A second panel meeting is set for summer and will include an analysis of industry documents.