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.
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.
Menthol and Cigarettes: Industry Responds
The tobacco industry disagrees with the study findings. The conclusions made in the study are not supported by the facts cited, says Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria Group, the market company of Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro, Alpine, Virginia Slims and other brands.
"Excerpts from several marketing documents from Philip Morris USA are used in the study report," he says. "All of them talk about adult smokers. We don't think kids should use tobacco and our marketing goal is to find ways to effectively and responsibly connect our brands with adult cigarette smokers."
"We disagree with the study's conclusion that the menthol levels in our products were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents."
Menthol and Cigarettes: Second Opinions
The study is "expanding on the science of menthol," says Neal Benowitz, MD, a professor of medicine and biopharmaceutical sciences at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and a long-time researcher on nicotine addiction. "It adds understanding about how tobacco companies design cigarettes with respect to the amount of menthol."
"The question of whether they are specifically targeted to adolescents is hard to say."
But in his opinion, based on his research and others, the menthol can make the cigarette taste better. "There is some evidence that those who smoke menthol have a harder time quitting," he tells WebMD. And some research suggests they may have a higher rate of relapse once they do try to quit, he says.
"Menthol makes the nicotine more addictive," he believes.
Another expert agrees. "While the direct contribution of menthol to the addiction and harm caused by cigarettes is not clear, there is no question that use of the substance can essentially grease the path to addiction and associated diseases," says Jack Henningfield, PhD, vice president of research and health policy at Pinney Associates, a health consulting and risk management firm in Bethesda, Md. and professor and director of the Innovators Awards Program at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
The Harvard researchers call for federal regulation of tobacco products, including additives such as menthol.
Phelps says Philip Morris USA has supported FDA regulation of tobacco products for seven years.
Congress is considering that option. At the present time, according to the Harvard researchers, no regulatory agency has the authority to address the issue of menthol content of cigarettes.