Packs of cigarettes line the shelves of a Charlotte, North Carolina, tobacco shop. Legislation to restrict cigarette production ignores the dangers of menthol cigarettes. The omission has racial implications, according to the Congressional Black Caucus. (Chuck Burton / AP)
The Congressional Black Caucus is calling for changes to a House tobacco-regulation bill, demanding that the legislation place restrictions on menthol cigarettes, the type heavily favored by African-American smokers.
The 43-member caucus is taking aim at a provision in the bill that would ban candy-, fruit- and spice-flavored cigarettes but that specifically exempts menthol. In recent weeks the exemption has become the focus of controversy because menthol brands are heavily used by black smokers, who develop a large share of smoking-related cancers and other health risks.
Donna M. Christensen, the Congressional delegate from the United States Virgin Islands who heads the black caucus's health task force, said the caucus was working with Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is House bill's sponsor, to address concerns about menthol.
"We are very aware and gravely concerned about the disproportionate incidence of lung cancer in the African-American community and, along with so many minority health experts, have long been concerned about the role menthol may play," Ms. Christensen said in an e-mail response to a reporter's query.
Ms. Christensen did not disclose the exact wording of any proposed changes to the legislation. But she said the group was working to strengthen the bill's language on research and reporting about menthol and to give the Food and Drug Administration explicit authority to ban menthol.
On the other side of the debate, Lorillard, the cigarette company that would stand to lose the most from a ban on menthol, is mounting a counteroffensive. In e-mail messages sent on June 22 to smokers of its leading menthol brand, Newport, the company urged them to call their Congressional representatives.
"Urgent! Urgent!," the message said. "Congress wants to make it illegal to smoke Newports and other menthol cigarettes. Call your member of Congress now and tell them to oppose any amendment to ban menthol cigarettes."
A spokesman for Lorillard, Michael W. Robinson, said, "We think it's important that consumers know what's going in Washington and have an opportunity to make their voices heard."
The legislation has passed crucial committees in both the House and the Senate, and supporters are hoping for floor votes this year. Mr. Waxman has predicted a House vote after members return from the July 4 recess.
With or without a menthol exemption, enactment of the bill is not a certainty.
Opponents of the proposal are hoping that opposition from the White House, as well as tobacco state senators, along with a series of delays in moving the bill to the House and Senate floors and an abbreviated election-year schedule, might mean the bill would not be adopted this year.
Menthol is a racially charged additive, in part because of the tobacco industry's heavy marketing of mentholated cigarettes to African-Americans since the 1950s. The flavor helps to mask the harsh taste of cigarettes and may make it easier to start smoking,
Menthol brands account for 28 percent of the $70 billion American cigarette market. While only 25 percent of white smokers choose menthol cigarettes, an estimated 75 percent of African-American smokers do.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health officials have raised concerns about the possibility that menthol cigarettes might increase tobacco addiction and possibly cancer rates among black smokers.
There is also evidence that some menthol brands, including Newport, contain among the highest level of nicotine of leading cigarettes. Some experts believe that higher nicotine levels increase the addictiveness of cigarettes.
Some lawmakers have said the decision to exempt menthol from the bill's flavorings ban was intended to win support for the legislation from Philip Morris, the country's dominant tobacco company, whose Marlboro Menthol is the second-leading menthol brand.
Some smoking opponents have said they consider the menthol exemption as a necessary compromise to get the legislation passed. They have said that the bill as currently drafted would give the F.D.A. the authority to limit or eliminate additives, including menthol, if proved to be harmful.
The American Medical Association, in its meeting in Chicago in June, voted to ask its board to consider the question of whether menthol should be banned. The decision effectively rebuffed members who had wanted the group to speak out this year against the bill's menthol exemption. Leaders of the organization cited the possibility that removing the menthol exemption might disrupt the compromise that has engendered broad support for the bill on Capitol Hill.
Some supporters of the bill's current language on menthol have argued that, because menthol is widely used by many smokers, the effects of banning it outright are hard to predict. Among possibilities they have suggested is that menthol smokers would turn to an illicit cigarette market to obtain menthol cigarettes.
In a letter to several lawmakers on June 11, a coalition of health groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, reiterated their support for the bill without changes to the menthol provisions.
"The impact of modifying or prohibiting such a large portion of the current cigarette market is unclear," said the letter, sent to Mr. Waxman as well as John D. Dingell of Michigan and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, House Democrats who head the Committee on Energy and Commerce and its health subcommittee.
The Congressional Black Caucus took up the menthol issue in June after Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, an African-American who was the secretary of health under President George H. W. Bush, met with members of Congress and their staffs to voice concerns about the bill's treatment of menthol.
Dr. Sullivan, president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, was one of nearly a dozen former federal health officials who had signed a letter expressing concern about the bill's treatment of menthol.
A black antismoking organization, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, withdrew its support for the bill in late May, citing the menthol exemption.