Tobacco companies defended menthol cigarettes to a U.S. advisory panel on Wednesday as health advocates called for a government ban on the popular flavoring.

About 19 million Americans smoke menthol cigarettes. Health advocates say the minty flavor masks the harshness of tobacco, making it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.

Manufacturers told a Food and Drug Administration panel that adding menthol did not make a cigarette more harmful or addictive.

"Overall the weight of scientific evidence indicates menthol does not change the inherent health risks of cigarette smoking," said James Dillard, a senior vice president at Altria, which sells menthol versions of its Marlboro brand cigarettes.

The panel of outside experts is studying the health effects of menthol and is due to submit a report by March 2011. The FDA eventually could ban menthol, although some activists and industry analysts doubt that will happen. Stronger warnings or advertising limits are other possibilities.

Any government action against menthol could be a blow to Lorillard, the nation's third-largest cigarette company and maker of the top-selling menthol brand Newport.

A 2009 tobacco law banned cigarette flavors such as chocolate, clove and fruit that could lure children. But Congress exempted menthol, the most popular flavoring with about 27 percent of the cigarette market, and instead called for an FDA review.

The issue is racially sensitive as blacks overwhelmingly favor menthol and suffer more from smoking-related illnesses and deaths than whites. A government survey showed 83 percent of adult black smokers chose menthol cigarettes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and others urged a ban on menthol flavoring, telling the FDA panel that it appealed to young people.

"Menthol has become the industry's last holdout and last hope for disguising the taste of tobacco... we should not allow companies to sweeten the poison," said Brandel France de Bravo of the National Research Center for Women & Families, a consumer group.

R.J. Reynolds said there was no evidence of greater health risks with menthol.

"There is no scientific basis to treat menthol cigarettes differently than regular cigarettes," said Michael Ogden, an official with Reynolds American unit R.J. Reynolds, which markets menthol-flavored Camels.

Lorillard Senior Vice President Bill True said there was no data to show that youth smoking rates would drop if menthol cigarettes were no longer available.

Advisory committee members drafted a broad list of questions they wanted the industry to answer in time for the next public meeting, expected in a few months.

The topics included lists of menthol content by brand, data on consumer perceptions of menthol's effects and details on any marketing campaigns aimed at particular groups.

The FDA will seek answers from the manufacturers and provide information to the committee, agency spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn said.