Menthol’s friends in high places

TOBACCO GIANT Lorillard crows as the FDA cowers. Last week, an advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration found that removal of menthol cigarettes would benefit public health. But the panel stopped short of recommending a ban, prompting stocks of Lorillard, the king of menthol cigarettes, to shoot up from roughly $79 a share to roughly $90.

The panel report comes three months after a Suffolk Superior Court jury awarded the family of Marie Evans $152 million in damages for Lorillard’s practice of handing out free Newport cigarettes to black children in Roxbury a half-century ago. Evans died of lung cancer in 2002 at age 54. The rise represents a full recovery of Lorillard stock, which fell from $89 a share last November to $74 a share in the month after the Evans award.

Marie Evans’ family was awarded $152 million after she died of lung cancer.

Marie Evans’ family was awarded $152 million after she died of lung cancer.

Under the 2009 smoking prevention act signed into law by President Obama, candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes were banned. But those kinds of cigarettes accounted for less than 1 percent of sales. Menthol smokers account for between 28 percent and 34 percent of American smokers, and Lorillard said Newport accounted for 36 percent of menthol cigarettes sold in the United States last year.

Menthol’s huge share of an $85 billion market means that particular flavor has both political defenders in tobacco states and ethnic-group civic leaders who are silenced by tobacco philanthropy. The silence most acutely affects African Americans as four of every five African American smokers smoke menthols. When President Obama, who famously struggles with smoking, signed the smoking prevention act into law, he made no mention of menthol even as he said cigarette flavoring was “most insidiously’’ a key method of tempting young smokers.

It should not be forgotten that while Republican presidential candidate John McCain received $120,000 in tobacco-industry campaign funds in 2008, Obama received $50,000 and he and rival Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd received a combined $182,000.

Tobacco control advocates hoped the advisory panel would deliver a scientific death blow to menthol and it is there if one wants to read it. Though the evidence was inconclusive as to whether a menthol cigarette itself is any more lethal than a non-menthol cigarette, research was “sufficient to conclude’’ that the soothing, minty effects of menthol and the industry’s targeted marketing “increases the prevalence of smoking’’ among African Americans and possibly Latinos. The panel found that menthol smoking is now spiking among white adolescents as well.

In 2008, seven former US health secretaries called for a menthol ban, saying the failure to enact one “caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies.’’ The tobacco companies behave as if the cave-in will continue. Lorillard reported a record $5.9 billion in sales in 2010 and CEO Murray Kessler last week boasted that the advisory panel report is “just the first step in what we believe will be a very long process that ultimately does not result in the removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace.’’

If that is true, then the FDA’s alleged new powers to regulate tobacco are a sham. In a conference call last month, Kessler said that when the FDA’s tobacco products director, Lawrence Deyton, addressed industry representatives this winter, “Director Deyton stood in front of the room and some of the smaller manufacturers started to get more vocal and he stood in front of that room and said you have never heard the word ban come out of the FDA. And he silenced the room. He said, point to me one example where you heard the word ban come from the FDA. I thought that was poignant.’’

We will find out how poignant that moment was when the FDA issues a report in the coming weeks. All we know right now is that once again, Lorillard stocks are sky high as public health is laid low.


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