Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that the tobacco industry is intentionally adjusting menthol to create a milder experience for the first time smoker.
Menthol covers the harshness and irritation of cigarettes, allowing delivery of an effective dose of nicotine, the addictive chemical in cigarettes.
"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.
A team of researchers led Jennifer M. Kreslake, a research analysis from the Tobacco Control Research Program at HSPH analyzed the internal tobacco industry documents on menthol product development, and conducted laboratory tests to measure menthol content in U.S. brands, examined market research reports
She also 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.
According to a 2006 study, 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 authors suggest, "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 director of the Tobacco Control Research Program at HSPH.
The study appears in the online "First Look" section of the American Journal of Public Health.