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Study: Young Smokers Lured With Menthol

Researchers Say Tobacco Companies Manipulate Menthol to Attract Youngsters, but Industry Denies It
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 18 2008 -- Cigarette makers manipulate the level of menthol in cigarettes, keeping it low to attract young smokers, then boosting it for older ones, according to a new study by Harvard researchers.

A spokesman for a major tobacco company denies the finding, saying the study doesn't square with the facts.

Menthol cigarette brands have been increasing in popularity among U.S. teens, with younger teen smokers likely to choose a menthol brand, Harvard researchers say. Sales of menthol cigarettes in the U.S. stayed stable from 2000 to 2005, according to the report, while overall sales of cigarette packs decreased by 22%.

Menthol cigarette use among teens increased between 2000 and 2002, with newer, younger smokers most likely to use them.

Menthol Levels in Cigarettes

The research team analyzed data from tobacco industry documents that describe the development of menthol products, lab-tested various U.S. menthol cigarette brands, examined market research reports, and drew from the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to reach their conclusions.

The study is published online early and in the September 2008 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

"The tobacco industry has knowingly manipulated the menthol contents [of cigarettes]," says Jennifer Kreslake, MPH, the study's lead author and a research analyst at the Harvard School of Public Health. "So it has created and customized brands in order to attract young, inexperienced smokers and also to lock in the older smokers who have become addicted."

"Menthol itself isn't addictive," she says. But some experts believe that menthol could increase the addictiveness of the nicotine.

"The driving factor behind any smoking behavior is addiction to the nicotine," Kreslake tells WebMD. Adding menthol, she says, makes smoking easier to tolerate for young smokers.

Her team has found that some new, young smokers can't tolerate "the irritation and harshness associated with regular cigarettes," she says. "Menthol helps to alleviate some of the harshness."

The researchers analyzed about 580 documents dating from 1985 to 2007, including product development activities from cigarettes makers that talked about preferred menthol levels and delivery as well as plans and marketing objectives related to menthol tobacco products.

"What the internal documents we reviewed revealed was that a low level of menthol is appealing among young smokers," she says. "As they become more experienced, they start craving the higher levels of menthol. We don't know why."

Cigarette makers, she says, "have created lower menthol brands that end up being popular among younger smokers." Among them are Newport and Marlboro Mild, she says.

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