CITY HALL — The city is targeting menthol cigarettes in its continuing effort to curtail smoking, especially among young people.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel formally asked the Chicago Board of Health and the Chicago Department of Public Health Thursday to take the initiative in discouraging menthol use.
Those agencies responded that they'll play host to a series of town hall meetings to heighten awareness of health concerns and discuss ways to reduce menthol smoking among teens and young adults.
The initiative comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cited a greater health risk with menthol cigarettes, as the minty taste masks the usual tobacco aroma and gives the impression of a cooler smoke. According to Emanuel spokeswoman Catherine Turco, Chicago is the first city to respond directly to that new FDA warning.
Emanuel cited statistics showing that the vast majority of African-American smokers in the 12-17 age group smoke menthols, as do youth who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Smokers who have taken up the habit by the age of 18 are 75 percent more likely to smoke as adults.
"Recognizing and reducing the impact of menthol cigarettes on the lives of our youth is an essential part of building a healthier Chicago and increasing the quality of life for all residents across the city," Emanuel said in a statement.
"Big tobacco is using menthol-flavored cigarettes to turn our children into lifelong addicts," said Dr. Carolyn Lopez, president of the Board of Health. She added that her agency "stands ready to work with Mayor Emanuel and our community to find new solutions to help our children."
"The tobacco industry is working really hard to get cigarettes in the hands of anyone who will purchase them," Turco said. "We need to work just as hard."
Turco cited Emanuel's past involvement in several anti-smoking campaigns, both as a congressman and as White House chief of staff. "He's really strong on this issue," she added. "It's really important to him."
At the same time, she dismissed any possible criticism of the campaign as the work of a "nanny state" meddling in personal choices, pointing to how the effort creates no new anti-smoking laws, but instead broadens the dialog on smoking.
"This is not a nanny-state issue. It's really more just public information," Turco added. "You can't regulate individual responsibility. This campaign is to make sure people have even more information."
According to Lopez, four public meetings on the issue will be held over the next two months, starting with the regular monthly Board of Health meeting Aug. 21. The other meetings will be located to target African-American, Hispanic and LGBT communities.
The Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago immediately cheered the campaign, citing how 16,000 Illinois youths take up smoking every year, and about half begin with menthols.
The FDA is seeking input from health experts and tobacco companies on the issue of menthol cigarettes.
Newport is the largest selling menthol cigarette in the U.S. and the second biggest seller of cigarettes in the U.S.
Murray Kessler, the CEO of Lorillard Inc., which manufactures Newports and other brands, told the Associated Press that menthols should not be treated any differently than other tobacco products.