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Another Skirmish in the Tobacco Wars

As near as I can see, a bunch of lobbyists working for industry fooled the reporters and spun the FDA panel's report on menthol last week as much weaker than it was in an attempt to make it harder for the FDA to ban menthol.

Panel Chair Jonathan Samet tries to correct the record.

Duff Wilson reports:

Panel Chief: F.D.A. Could Still Ban Menthol: Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, the chairman of a federal advisory panel on tobacco whose report last Friday sent menthol cigarette stock prices soaring, says the investor enthusiasm may be premature. “What’s critical for their interests are what steps the F.D.A. actually takes,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. And Dr. Samet, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, said that the panel’s scientific report gives ample evidence to the Food and Drug Administration to phase out or restrict menthol in cigarettes. The group found the minty additive, compared with nonmenthol cigarettes, poses a public health risk because it makes it easier to start smoking and harder for some smokers to quit.

While the eight-member group led by Dr. Samet did not recommend a specific policy to phase out or ban menthol cigarettes, that was never its role, he said in the interview, emphasizing the word “scientific” in its formal title, Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. Further, Dr. Samet disagreed with statements by some stock analysts and public health advocates that the panel did not make a clear recommendation. It did, he said, in the conclusive statement in its 231-page report: “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.” “To me that speaks quite clearly to what our recommendation is,” Dr. Samet said. “I think the major issue is probably a failure to understand the role of this committee and what the F.D.A. does as a regulatory agency. I think the statement about removal is what the public health recommendation is, and I think how one achieves that outcome depends on the strategies available to the F.D.A. under the law.”

Unlike an F.D.A. drug advisory committee, which could recommend removal of an unsafe drug or a black-box warning, the F.D.A. tobacco panel has no history of clear cut policy options, Dr. Samet said. He added that would make it even more important to let the agency assess the options and their consequences before acting — especially in the litigious tobacco field. “I’ll be watching with interest what the F.D.A. does next,” he said.

Menthol cigarettes themselves do not pose a greater health risk to individual smokers, the report found, but they pose a greater risk in overall public health by increasing the number of smokers and smoking-related deaths. Menthol is smoked disproportionately by youths and African-Americans. Shares in Lorillard Tobacco, the nation’s leading seller of menthol cigarettes with the Newport brand, rose nearly 10 percent on Friday after the panel released its report, and they have continued to rise. Lorillard stock was trading at $91.20 a share on Tuesday afternoon, up 14 percent from Friday morning.

David J. Adelman, tobacco industry analyst for Morgan Stanley, wrote Monday that the scientific report was “a favorable development” because it did not box in the F.D.A. policy options.

But a joint statement Friday from four health groups seemed to support Dr. Samet’s interpretation of the panel’s action. The statement, signed by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, said, “The committee has done exactly what Congress directed when it enacted the 2009 law granting the F.D.A. authority over tobacco products. Now the F.D.A. must act expeditiously and implement the committee’s recommendation”...