Thursday, March 22, 2012

Former Secretary of HEW Joseph A. Califano, Jr. Criticizes Surgeon General's Report for Political, Not Scientific Treatment of Menthol

In a Huffington Post column, former HEW Secretary and Chairman Emeritus of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University - Joseph A. Califano, Jr. - lays down heavy criticism of the Surgeon General's report on youth smoking. Specifically, Dr. Califano criticizes the report for meticulous detailing the mechanisms by which menthol cigarettes have led to increased smoking among youth, but then failing to make any recommendation that menthol cigarettes be banned, as have chocolate, strawberry, banana, cherry, and coconut ones. Instead, as Califano points out, the Surgeon General calls merely for "continued surveillance" of menthol cigarettes.

Dr. Califano writes: "In the recent report, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, the Surgeon General sounds more like Inspector Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther than the nation's top health officer. After demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that menthol flavoring is the key culprit in getting children and young adults to smoke cigarettes, she fails to urge the Food and Drug Administration to exercise its power to ban use of this flavoring by tobacco companies. It's like Inspector Clouseau finding someone holding a smoking gun over the dead victim riddled with bullets and not making the connection that he might be the killer." ...

"The Surgeon General expresses alarming concern that smoking among 12 to 17 year olds and young adults age 18 to 25 has increased. Then after she presents overwhelming evidence that menthol cigarettes are largely to blame for that rise, what does the Surgeon General do? In an Inspector Clouseau imitation, she simply finds that "mentholated cigarettes deserve special note" and "continued surveillance of menthol cigarettes is warranted"--all of this in an appendix to the report!"

Secretary Califano's commentary is very similar to mine of last week, in which I wrote as follows:

"This essentially amounts to a non-recommendation by the Surgeon General. Despite the conclusion that menthol cigarettes enhance the smoking initiation process among youth, have been modified specifically for the youth market in order to enhance initiation, and are contributing to an increased likelihood that youth will smoke cigarettes, the Surgeon General nevertheless fails to conclude that any action is necessary on menthol cigarettes, other than to merely conduct 'continued surveillance.'"

"For those unfamiliar with the technical jargon, "continued surveillance" translates into "do nothing."

"Thus, the story here is that the U.S. Surgeon General does not recommend any action on menthol cigarettes, despite their contribution to the problem of youth smoking, which is reviewed in exhausting detail in her 900 page report."

The Rest of the Story

It seems quite clear - now from two independent observers - that the administration has no interest in treating menthol as a scientific issue. Instead, it appears that decision-making is being done on a political basis. Nothing else could possibly explain the glaring disconnect between the evidence presented in the report on menthol and its role in promoting and supporting youth smoking and the lack of any recommendation to do anything about it, despite the sweeping statements that the same Department has made in recent weeks about how it is going to end the tobacco epidemic as we know it.

This suggests to me that there simply does not exist the political will in the administration to take on anything as potentially controversial as a ban on menthol, especially in an election year. For this reason, I have seriously downgraded my opinion regarding the possible chances for a federal ban on menthol cigarettes to close to zero (officially, I would call it: just a notch above bupkes).

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