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New Studies on Menthol and Polonium-210 in Cigarettes Show Need for FDA Regulation of Tobacco Products

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
July 17, 2008

Washington, D.C. — Two new studies published online today in the American Journal of Public Health demonstrate the critical need for Congress to enact pending legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over tobacco products. One study found that tobacco companies deliberately manipulate levels of menthol in cigarettes in ways the authors conclude recruit new, young smokers and satisfy long-term smokers. The second study found that tobacco companies, because of public relations and litigation concerns, suppressed their own internal research about the presence of polonium-210, a radioactive, cancer-causing chemical, in cigarettes and cigarette smoke.

These studies demonstrate how the current lack of regulation allows tobacco companies to manipulate their products in ways harmful to health and to control what is in their products and what they disclose about them. Currently, no government agency has the authority to regulate menthol, polonium-210 or any of the more than 4,000 chemicals in a cigarette. The legislation before Congress would fundamentally change this harmful status quo by granting the FDA authority over the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco products. For the first time, decisions about tobacco products would be made to protect public health rather than to maximize the profits of the tobacco industry.

Under this legislation, the FDA would gain critical authority to curtail the tobacco industry's harmful practices. Among other things, the legislation would:

  • Require tobacco companies to disclose the contents of tobacco products, changes to their products and research about their products.
  • Empower the FDA to require changes in tobacco products, such as the elimination or reduction of harmful chemicals. This includes the authority to regulate the use of menthol in cigarettes, including banning menthol entirely if the FDA determines this will protect public health.
  • Curtail tobacco marketing, especially to children. Among other things, the bill would limit tobacco advertising in stores and in magazines with significant teen readership to black-and-white text only; require stores to place tobacco products behind the counter; ban all remaining tobacco brand sponsorships of sports and entertainment events; and ban free cigarette samples and free giveaways of non-tobacco items with the purchase of a tobacco product. Importantly, this legislation would for the first time in 40 years return to the states the authority to regulate cigarette marketing. States and localities could impose bans or restrictions on the time, place and manner (but not content) of the advertising or promotion of cigarettes. These steps will restrict both tobacco marketing to children in general and the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes that has been so harmful to the African-American community.
  • Require larger, more effective health warnings on tobacco products and give the FDA the authority to revise warnings to reflect emerging concerns such as polonium-210. Currently, it requires an act of Congress to change tobacco health warnings.

This legislation has been sponsored by a majority of both the House and the Senate, has been endorsed by more than 680 public health, faith and other organizations around the country, and is supported by 70 percent of American voters. These new studies demonstrate why it is critical that Congress act now to grant the FDA long-overdue authority over tobacco products and address the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. Tobacco use kills more than 400,000 Americans and costs the nation nearly $100 billion in health care bills each year.

More information on the two studies:

Menthol study: This study, by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that tobacco companies deliberately manipulate menthol levels in cigarettes in ways that appeal to different smokers. The companies developed and marketed cigarettes with lower levels of menthol and milder perceived menthol sensation that appeal to younger smokers. More established smokers preferred cigarettes with higher menthol levels. For new or younger smokers, menthol masks the harshness and discomfort of inhaling smoke. The study concludes, 'To protect the public health, tobacco products should be federally regulated, and additives such as menthol should be included in that regulation.'

Polonium-210 study: This study, by researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University, found that tobacco companies suppressed publication of their own internal research about the presence and potential health effects of radioactive, cancer-causing polonium-210 in cigarettes and cigarette smoke. Based on a review of internal tobacco industry documents, the study found that tobacco companies for 40 years have been concerned about the public relations and litigation problems posed by polonium-210 in cigarettes and sought to avoid public attention to the issue for fear of 'waking a sleeping giant,' as one Philip Morris document put it. The study found that tobacco companies 'continue to minimize its [polonium-210's] importance in smoking and health litigation and remain silent on the issue on their Web sites and in their messages to consumers.'

Citing prior research, the study states, 'It is estimated that smokers of 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day are exposed to as much radiation as they would receive from 300 chest X-rays a year. PO-210 has been estimated to be responsible for 1% of all U.S. lung cancers ... PO-210 may be responsible for more than 1,600 deaths in the United States and 11,700 deaths in the world every year.' Polonium-210 received significant media attention in 2006 when it was found to have been used in the fatal poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander V. Litvinenko.

March 2007 polling conducted for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found that 92 percent of teens and 91 percent of adults did not know that polonium-210 was found in cigarettes and cigarette smoke. When presented with a list of chemicals in cigarette smoke and asked to choose which they feared most, 30 percent of teens and 29 percent of adults chose polonium-210, more than any other chemical.

The studies will be available on the Web site of the American Journal of Public Health at