menthal_cirgarette.jpgRICHMOND, Va. — The Food and Drug Administration is conducting an independent review of research on the public health impact of menthol cigarettes – which are mint flavored and one of the few growth sectors of the shrinking cigarette business.

The federal agency said members of its Center for Tobacco Products will gather menthol studies and then submit its review to an external peer review panel this month. The process is expected to be completed in the fall of 2011.  The results of the review will be available for public comment.

FDA spokesman Jeff Ventura said the review is meant to ensure that the “best available science is used to support regulatory and programmatic decision making.”

The review comes after the FDA, in March, received a report from the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee on the minty smokes. Panels like the tobacco committee advise the FDA on scientific issues. The agency doesn't have to follow its recommendations but often does.

The report, which was mandated under the 2009 law giving the agency the authority to regulate tobacco, said removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health because the flavoring has led to an increase in smokers, particularly among teens, African Americans and those with low incomes. It also said that they make it harder for them to quit.

The report, however, said menthol smokers are not likely to be at a higher risk of disease or exposed to a greater number of toxins.

The report concluded that more research is needed and the federal agency should develop a program to monitor marketing of menthol cigarettes. It also suggested that, should the FDA choose to recommend a ban or other restrictions, the agency should study the potential for contraband menthol cigarettes, a concern raised by the tobacco industry and other trade groups.

A menthol ban or other restrictions on the flavored cigarettes would fall heavily on Lorillard Inc., whose Newport brand is the top-selling menthol cigarette in the U.S., with roughly 35 percent of the market. Lorillard, the country's third-largest tobacco company, is based in Greensboro, N.C.

“We continue to strongly believe that an objective, thorough and rigorous scientific review will lead the agency to conclude that menthol cigarettes do not present any more harm than non-menthol cigarettes,” Gregg Perry, a spokesman for Lorillard, said in a statement.

In a statement, Richmond-based Altria Group Inc., parent company of the nation's largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said the review of menthol in cigarettes should be “science- and evidence-based.”

Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, signaled in March that a ban is not a sure thing, saying that the report does not set FDA policy or actions. But many analysts believe the FDA won't ban menthol, which about 19 million Americans smoke.

The percentage of cigarette smokers using menthol brands grew from 31 percent in 2004 to 33.9 percent in 2008, according to a study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, with more significant growth among younger smokers.

There's evidence consumers perceive that menthol cigarettes offer some health protection or medicinal benefit that non-menthol cigarettes don't, according to the report. It also says menthols are disproportionately marketed to African Americans and younger smokers.

Meanwhile, a tobacco industry report to the FDA acknowledges that all cigarettes are hazardous but says there's no scientific basis for regulating menthols differently.

In response to the FDA's latest move, Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the advisory panel did a thorough and expert job reviewing the science and the March report “deserves great weight.”

“Our hope is that FDA will move forward quickly to determine what action follows from those scientific conclusions,” Myers said.