Use of menthol cigarettes is rising among teenagers and "very high" for minority youth, government advisers said in part of a draft report released on Monday.
More than 80 percent of black adolescent smokers and more than half of Hispanic adolescent smokers use menthol cigarettes, advisers to the Food and Drug Administration said in a draft chapter for a report due next week. The FDA will use the report to help decide whether to ban or limit menthol, or mint-flavored, cigarettes.
Any curbs would be a severe blow to top menthol maker Lorillard Inc, which sells the Newport brand. Reynolds American Inc's R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co and Altria Group Inc's Philip Morris also sell menthol cigarettes.
Menthols account for nearly one-third of the $83 billion in annual U.S. cigarette sales, according Euromonitor International data.
"Menthol cigarette use is very high among minority youth," the draft from FDA advisers said. Among Asian-American middle-school smokers, more than half use menthol.
It also said the rise among adolescents in general was driven by a "significant increase in the number of white youth ages 12 to 17 who are smoking menthol cigarettes."
The FDA advisers are set to hold a public meeting on Thursday and Friday to discuss their findings. In previously released chapters, advisers said there was a lack of evidence to show menthol cigarettes expose smokers to higher risk of disease but that the flavoring might make cigarettes more addictive.
The complete report is due to go to the FDA by March 23. The FDA is not bound by the panel's recommendation and has no deadline to take any action.
Lorillard has filed a lawsuit to prevent the FDA from considering the panel's report in making any final decision on the cigarettes.
Lorillard shares fell 0.5 percent to $78.86, Reynolds shares fell 0.3 percent to $33.62 and Altria shares were down a penny at $25.04, all on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine and Susan Heavey, editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Dave Zimmerman)
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