RALEIGH, N.C. -- 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 throats and helps tame an achy tummy. But in cigarettes, some health experts argue, 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.
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 brought the debate to Raleigh on Wednesday, when big tobacco executives and public health officials met at a downtown hotel to discuss the new law on cigarettes and how the FDA would enforce it.
Outside, dozens of workers from Lorillard Tobacco in Greensboro, N.C., paced in the bitter cold. They produce Newports, menthol cigarettes that have been their ticket to a middle-class life.
"This is about my livelihood.," said Darsey Campbell, who has cleaned and serviced Lorillard equipment for 40 years. "... 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, an FDA spokesman.
With cigarettes, the federal government is engaged in an awkward dance. On one hand, America needs jobs more than ever, and government officials want to avoid jeopardizing a major U.S. manufacturer's product and market share. Cigarette makers 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. The FDA doesn't want kids to pick up a cigarette 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. The biggest consumers of menthol cigarettes are young people and minorities, studies show.
Campbell, the Lorillard worker, smokes Newports flavored with menthol. She wants government to stay out of her business.
"I'm grown. It's my choice," she said.
Campbell's bigger concern is about her job. She's one of about 2,000 people working for Lorillard in Greensboro, where generations have found jobs paying 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 in November, 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.
FDA officials say they are a long way from having an answer to the menthol question. Congress obliged them to study, and scientists have been meeting to do just that. A report is due to the FDA secretary in March, but there are no deadlines or expectations after that.
"The FDA has made no statements about potentially banning menthol," said Lawrence R. Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products.
(Contact Mandy Locke at mandy.locke(at)newsobserver.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)