WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inched closer Tuesday to a decision on whether to ban menthol in cigarettes, releasing its own scientific review that found the mint flavoring made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.
The agency also published a notice in the federal register calling for input from the public on the “potential regulation on menthol in cigarettes,” another step in the rule-making progress that began in 2009 when Congress exempted menthol from a ban on flavors in cigarettes.
The move is likely to please smoking opponents, who have been calling for FDA action on menthol cigarettes. They account for about a quarter of all cigarettes smoked in the United States and are particularly popular among African Americans.
Many advocates expected the agency to act on menthol in 2011 after a congressionally mandated committee of outside experts, convened by the FDA, found that menthol had a negative effect on public health.
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“This is either a way to take the heat off, or the beginning of a meaningful process,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group. “That’s the book the jury is still out on.”
Myers said the timing of the announcement was likely linked to an international-trade dispute.
The United States has until Wednesday to comply with a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling. It held that the U.S. ban on clove cigarettes under the 2009 law violated Indonesia’s trade rights if the United States was not also banning menthol.
The U.S. contended that menthol posed a different public-health risk from other flavors, but the WTO did not accept the argument.