That cool, throat-numbing sensation some smokers find in their cigarettes could go the way of other products the federal government has deemed dangerous.
Menthol, a natural compound found in the mint plant, soothes sunburns, tempers coughs and helps tame an achy tummy, but on cigarettes, some health experts argue, it's a ruse. It makes the poison that is tobacco go down more smoothly, tricking the youngest and most foolhardy smokers.
Last year, Congress passed far-reaching tobacco regulations that, among other things, banned chocolate- or strawberry-flavored cigarettes, saying they lured kids to smoke by dressing up cigarettes as candy.
Cigarettes which contain menthol are considered to be more addictive than regular cigarettes. Regular cigarettes are Vogue cigarettes and Camel cigarettes.
But Congress passed on regulating menthol cigarettes, which account for one-third of cigarettes sold in the United States. Instead, it called for a study and more discussion by the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA took the debate to Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, when big tobacco executives met public health officials in a conference room at the Marriot Hotel downtown to discuss the new law on cigarettes and how the FDA would go about enforcing it.
Outside, dozens of workers from Greensboro, N.C., who make their living manning machines that make menthol-laced cigarettes, paced in the bitter cold. For Lorillard Tobacco workers, who produce Newport cigarettes, menthol is an ingredient that makes their brand pop with flavor, and those cigarettes have been their ticket to a middle class life.
"This is about my livelihood. I've got responsibilities," said Darsey Campbell, who has logged 40 years at Lorillard Tobacco, cleaning and servicing equipment. "We have to worry when the government starts messing with one more thing. Don't they have enough to do?"
The conundrum for federal officials is clear: Cigarettes are bad; jobs are good. Can there be a winner?
"Undeniably, this is a very controversial issue with a lot of moving parts," said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for the FDA.
With cigarettes, the federal government is now engaged in an awkward dance. On one hand, America needs jobs more than ever, and government officials want to avoid jeopardizing the product, and market share, of a major U.S. manufacturer. Cigarette makers who use menthol insist that banning menthol will simply push production overseas or into an unregulated black market.
But the government also doesn't want people to smoke; it is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S. Smoking attacks the lungs, making smokers prone to chronic sickness and heavily reliant on health care. The FDA is adamant about not wanting kids to pick up a cigarette and start the habit.
Public health officials want cigarettes to taste as bad as they are for a smoker's health, and menthol undermines that. The product, which can be made synthetically, tempers the burn cigarettes bring to the throat. If kids feel that burn, they may never pick up another cigarette, some health officials argue. Studies show that the biggest consumers of menthol cigarettes are young people and members of minority groups.
Campbell, the Lorillard worker, smokes Newports flavored with menthol. She has almost all her life and wants government to stay out of her business.
"I'm grown. It's my choice," she said.
Campbell's biggest concern, though, isn't her smoking habit but rather her job. She's one of about 2,000 people working for Lorillard in Greensboro, where generations of families have found jobs that pay enough for them to buy homes and take care of their families.
Lorillard executives won't predict what would become of the Greensboro plant should the FDA ban menthol in cigarettes. The company just started making a menthol-free Newport last month, but it's too soon to say whether it will catch on, said Bob Bannon, Lorillard's director of investor relations.
Lorillard's corner of the cigarette market depends on menthol, which workers spray on tobacco before rolling it in paper. They make a third of the menthol cigarettes sold in the U.S., accounting for about 10 percent of the total cigarette market.
"It's tough to say what impact we'll feel," Bannon said. "We're trying to measure what adult smokers' reaction would be in the scenario that it disappears. We just don't know, but we think the number of people who would quit altogether would be low."
FDA officials say they are a long way from having an answer to the menthol question. And they may simply decide to not answer it. Congress obliged them to study, and scientists have been meeting to do just that. A report is due to the FDA in March, but after that, there are no deadlines or expectations.
"The FDA has made no statements about potentially banning menthol," said Lawrence R. Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products.
Campbell and about 30 of her co-workers didn't want to take chances. Outside the Marriot on Wednesday, they pushed signs into the air, reminding tobacco executives and FDA officials that they, too, have a stake in the future of menthol in cigarettes.
THE POWER OF MENTHOL
Menthol has been commonly used to flavor cigarettes since the 1950s. About 30 percent of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. contain menthol. A third of those are made by Lorillard Tobacco in Greensboro, N.C., which produces Newport cigarettes.
Scientists have reported that menthol dulls the senses and makes smoking easier for new smokers and harder for regular smokers to quit.
How does menthol do it?
-Soothes the respiratory tract
-Masks harshness of smoke
-Anesthetizes the throat
-Increases production of saliva