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Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

Menthol cigarettes like the Newport brand are appealing to young smokers because menthol provides a cooling sensation and masks the taste of tobacco.

Parents OK with Emanuel’s push against menthol smoking, as long as smokers aren’t criminalized

by Ashley Hickey
Oct 22, 2013

Parents, politicians and health officials are concerned about how many of the city’s young people are smoking menthol cigarettes, but parents do not want kids punished for using them.

“Something we heard from folks in some of our town hall meetings is that they’re really afraid that if we start cracking down and using youth possession and purchase penalties, we’re criminalizing otherwise good kids,” said Kendall Stagg, policy director for the Chicago Department of Public Health, at a board meeting last week.

Chicago Board of Health members emphasized this point at their meeting Wednesday, the goal of which was to review the findings of four town hall meetings held in September focused on curtailing menthol use among Chicago’s youth.

A July report published by the Food and Drug Administration highlighted consistent patterns of use with menthol cigarettes. Several studies showed menthols were more common among smokers who were African-American, Hispanic, female, had a lower education or were younger than 26.

One study showed 76 percent of African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to only 20 percent of white smokers.

“We don’t want to criminalize kids carrying tobacco products and take them into our criminal justice system, which will have a much worse outcome at the end of the day,” Health Department Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair said.

The town hall meetings brought together more than 200 people and generated a variety of ideas to address the menthol problem, according to the Health Department.

The final version of the report will be made public after it goes to Emanuel, a response to his call in August for recommendations on how to curtail youth menthol smoking.

“Flavored tobacco is a leading gateway to smoking addiction for our youth,” Emanuel said, “which is why we must come together as a community to protect our young people from what too often becomes a lifelong and life-threatening habit."

The mayor is simultaneously waging a larger campaign for federal action.
A Sept. 26 letter he sent the FDA proposes several measures, ranging from new warning labels specific to menthol to banning menthol cigarettes altogether.

Emanuel’s efforts follow his work on the 2009 Tobacco Control Act – first while serving in Congress and then as White House chief of staff – which led to an FDA ban on cigarettes with candy, fruit, spice and other flavorings that make them appealing to kids.

Menthol cigarettes, which the federal government says account for more than 20 percent of all cigarette sales, were not included in the ban.

Derived from the peppermint plant, menthol provides a minty flavor and cooling sensation. It is often added to throat lozenges and nasal sprays.

In cigarettes, menthol masks the tobacco taste and reduces throat irritation associated with smoking, which makes menthols particularly attractive for first-time smokers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that more than 40 percent of middle and high school student smokers use flavored little cigars or flavored cigarettes such as menthols.

The president of the Chicago Board of Health blames tobacco companies.
“Big tobacco is using menthol-flavored cigarettes to turn our children into lifelong addicts,” Dr. Carolyn Lopez said.

Tobacco sellers think separate menthol regulation is unnecessary because these cigarettes are subject to the same regulations as standard cigarettes, such as requiring proof of age to purchase and face-to-face sales.

“There needs to be a real education on the part of the Board of Health and the mayor’s office to have adults abide by the law,” said Tom Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets. “Tobacco retailers have to abide by the law, and other adults should too.”

Data shows the FDA conducted 4,327 compliance inspection checks of Illinois tobacco retailers since February 2011, resulting in 510 warning letters issued to first-time violators and 79 compliance penalties issued for repeat offenders.

With tobacco retailers operating at a fairly high compliance rate, Briant believes menthol use in minority groups and young people is due to enabling adults who buy cigarettes legally and provide them to minors, as well as a black market fueled by high taxes on tobacco at the city, county, state and federal level.

“I would advocate for stepped up law enforcement on illegal sources, and a reduction of the high tax rate,” Briant said. “People believe a higher tax rate will lower the smoking rate. Some do quit, but the majority don’t. They find other ways.”

Emanuel said that while he lobbies for federal action on menthols, Chicago will lead the way on the most extensive local measures possible – including asking the City Council on Wednesday to consider approving an additional 75-cent tax per pack – and he is looking to the Board of Health report for suggestions.

At Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting, members decided they would send Emanuel a report with bold language urging regulation of menthol cigarette advertising to minority communities.

Members, however, were clear-eyed about the legal and political complications such action might invite for the mayor, but they were confident he could navigate those waters.