Tobacco industry manipulated cigarette menthol content to recruit new smokers among young people

July 16, 2008

Menthol cigarette brands have been rising in popularity with adolescents, and the highest use has been among younger, newer smokers. Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) explored tobacco industry manipulation of menthol levels in specific brands and found a deliberate strategy to recruit and addict young smokers by adjusting menthol to create a milder experience for the first time smoker. Menthol masks the harshness and irritation of cigarettes, allowing delivery of an effective dose of nicotine, the addictive chemical in cigarettes. These milder products were then marketed to the youngest potential consumers.

The paper, "Tobacco Industry Control of Menthol in Cigarettes and Targeting of Adolescents and Young Adults," appears in the online "First Look" section of the American Journal of Public Health in advance of publication in the September 2008 issue.

"For decades, the tobacco industry has carefully manipulated menthol content not only to lure youth but also to lock in lifelong adult customers," said Howard Koh, Professor and Associate Dean for Public Health Practice at HSPH and a co-author of the paper.

Lead author Jennifer M. Kreslake, a research analyst, and colleagues from the Tobacco Control Research Program at HSPH reviewed internal tobacco industry documents on menthol product development, conducted laboratory tests to measure menthol content in U.S. brands, examined market research reports and drew data from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual nationally representative survey among U.S. residents aged 12 years and older. The industry documents revealed that tobacco companies researched how controlling menthol levels could increase brand sales among specific groups. The companies determined that products with higher menthol levels and stronger perceived menthol sensation suited long-term smokers of menthol cigarettes while milder brands with lower menthol levels appealed to younger smokers.

The companies then positioned and marketed milder menthol products to appeal primarily to new menthol smokers and also introduced new, milder brands. For example, Marlboro introduced Marlboro Milds in 2000, with a lower menthol concentration while raising the menthol content in Marlboro Menthol, favored by older smokers. Menthol brands with the greatest market share growth among young adults had the lowest menthol levels (Marlboro Milds and Newport) among the brands tested by HSPH.

The 2006 national survey showed that a significantly greater proportion of adolescent and young adult smokers used menthol brands compared to older smokers. In 2006, 43.8 percent of current smokers aged 12 to 17 years reported that they used menthol cigarettes as did 35.6 percent of current smokers aged 18 to 24 years. By contrast, 30.6 percent of smokers older than 35 years reported menthol use.

The researchers noted that race was also a factor in use and brand choice, with African Americans as a whole more likely to use menthol brands. African-American adolescent and young adult smokers used menthol as frequently as did older African-American smokers, but they were more likely to choose a lower-menthol variety. Earlier HSPH research described industry efforts to target African Americans with menthol brands.

A bill before Congress (HR 1108, S 625) would for the first time give the FDA the authority to regulate additives such as menthol. At present, no regulatory agency has the authority to address the issue of menthol in cigarettes.

The HSPH researchers suggest in their paper that the rapid introduction of new milder menthol brands in the past decade is a violation of a provision in the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 between tobacco companies and state governments that prohibits the companies from directly or indirectly targeting youths. The authors recommend that "to protect the public health, tobacco products should be federally regulated, and additives such as menthol should be included in that regulation."

"This is another example of the cynical behavior of the tobacco industry to hook teens and African Americans to a deadly addiction. This is after the industry told the American public it had changed its marketing practices. The FDA bill provides the vehicle to end the hypocrisy and save the lives of the young and a targeted minority group," said Gregory N. Connolly, Professor of the Practice of Public Health and a co-author of the American Journal of Public Health paper. Connolly is Director of the Tobacco Control Research Program at HSPH.

Tobacco use is the largest preventable cause of death globally. According to the National Cancer Institute, in the U.S. smoking-related illnesses account for an estimated 438,000 deaths each year. An estimated 25.9 million men (23.9 percent) and 20.7 million women (18.1 percent) in the U.S. are smokers, according to the American Heart Association.

Source: Harvard School of Public Health

Explore further: E-cig refills contain irritants, and people who smoke and use e-cigs suffer more symptoms

Related Stories

E-cig refills contain irritants, and people who smoke and use e-cigs suffer more symptoms

September 11, 2017
Two new studies presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress highlight the risks associated with using e-cigarettes, especially for those who also smoke conventional cigarettes.

EU crackdown on tobacco stops short of plain packets (Update)

December 19, 2012
With menthol cigarettes to be banned and cigarette packs sold with repulsive images of rotting lungs, the European Union released new anti-tobacco proposals Wednesday, the first in over a decade.

Menthol cigarettes marketed in 'predatory' pattern, study shows

June 24, 2011
Tobacco companies increased the advertising and lowered the sale price of menthol cigarettes in stores near California high schools with larger populations of African-American students, according to a new study from the Stanford ...

EU lawmakers to push ahead with anti-tobacco plans (Update)

October 8, 2013
European lawmakers on Tuesday were set to tighten rules governing the multibillion-dollar tobacco market by imposing bigger and bolder warnings on cigarette packs, banning most flavorings like menthol and strengthening regulation ...

Menthol-like cigarettes still sold in Canada despite ban

July 20, 2016
Despite a recent ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Nova Scotia, cigarettes made with similar coloring and marketed as having the same taste are still being sold, new research from ...

Closing the gap between gay, heterosexual smokers

July 11, 2017
Gays and lesbians are more than twice as likely to use tobacco than heterosexuals, and University of Illinois at Chicago researchers have detailed how the disparity can be reduced.

Recommended for you

New shoe makes running 4 percent easier, 2-hour marathon possible, study shows

November 17, 2017
Eleven days after Boulder-born Shalane Flanagan won the New York City Marathon in new state-of-the-art racing flats known as "4%s," University of Colorado Boulder researchers have published the study that inspired the shoes' ...

Vaping while pregnant could cause craniofacial birth defects, study shows

November 16, 2017
Using e-cigarettes during pregnancy could cause birth defects of the oral cavity and face, according to a recent Virginia Commonwealth University study.

Study: For older women, every movement matters

November 16, 2017
Folding your laundry or doing the dishes might not be the most enjoyable parts of your day. But simple activities like these may help prolong your life, according to the findings of a new study in older women led by the University ...

When vegetables are closer in price to chips, people eat healthier, study finds

November 16, 2017
When healthier food, like vegetables and dairy products, is pricier compared to unhealthy items, like salty snacks and sugary sweets, Americans are significantly less likely to have a high-quality diet, a new Drexel University ...

Children's exposure to secondhand smoke may be vastly underestimated by parents

November 15, 2017
Four out of 10 children in the US are exposed to secondhand smoke, according to the American Heart Association. A new Tel Aviv University study suggests that parents who smoke mistakenly rely on their own physical senses ...

Serious health risks associated with energy drinks

November 15, 2017
A new review of current scientific knowledge on energy drinks finds their advertised short-term benefits can be outweighed by serious health risks—which include risk-seeking behavior, mental health problems, increased blood ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.