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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Cigarette maker Lorillard Inc. is launching a campaign to defend menthol cigarettes amid a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel’s review of the minty smokes.

The nation’s third-largest cigarette company holds about 35 percent share of the U.S menthol cigarette market with its top-selling Newport brand.

Lorillard, based in Greensboro, N.C., said on Monday it has launched a website called “Understanding Menthol” that explains the company’s position, the science that is under review by a federal advisory committee, and the consequences of a potential ban on menthol cigarettes.

Lorillard also sent letters to more than a halfmillion Newport smokers alerting them to the FDA’s review of claims that menthol cigarettes have greater public health impacts, including among children and certain ethnic groups. It also plans to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with smokers on the issue.

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“We believe our customers need to be aware of this review process and the real-world consequences of whatever recommendation the panel makes to the FDA,” William True, senior vice president of research and development for Lorillard, said in a written statement to The Associated Press.

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Menthol cigarettes are a key area for growth for tobacco companies in a shrinking cigarette market. While most industry observers think a menthol ban is unlikely, the industry is keeping a close eye on the committee’s work. The panel is to make recommendations by next March.

The share of smokers using menthol cigarettes increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 33.9 percent in 2008, with more pronounced increases among young smokers, according to a study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in November.

It also showed that among black smokers, 82.6 percent used menthol cigarettes, compared with 32.3 percent for Hispanic smokers and 23.8 percent for white smokers.

But studies vary on menthol’s health impacts and whether it plays a large role in enticing people to start smoking or have greater health impacts.

Lorillard has said it believes scientific evidence does not show that menthol cigarettes create greater health risk than non-menthol cigarettes. Lorillard also believes that a ban on menthol would lead to a black market for contraband smokes that don’t meet basic product standards.

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