Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 6 - July 2011
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Minty fresh cancer sticks

Menthol disguises harsh taste, makes it easier to smoke and harder to quit

By Joe Strizzi

Menthol cigarettes have historically been marketed as a refreshing and smooth alternative to regular smokes. Despite a lack of legislation in Canada and the US regarding the additive, researchers believe that menthol is a threat to public health.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report in March conducted by its Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC), which made recommendations based on an evaluation of the available scientific evidence on the impact of the use of menthol in cigarettes on public health. 

The report by the Advisory Committee found that menthol cannot be considered simply a flavouring additive in tobacco. 

The availability of menthol cigarettes has an adverse impact on public health by increasing the number of smokers with resulting premature death and avoidable mortalities,” said advisory panel member and Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society, Mark Clanton, in his report summary.

Menthol’s pharmacologic actions reduce the harshness of smoke and the irritation from nicotine and may increase the likelihood of nicotine addiction in adolescents and young adults who experiment with smoking.  Furthermore, the distinct sensory characteristics of menthol may enhance the addictiveness of menthol cigarettes, which appears to be the case among youth. The TPSAC argues that the availability of menthol cigarettes has adverse impact on public health by increasing the numbers of smokers, with resulting premature death and morbidity that could be avoided. Consequently, the TPSAC recommended that menthol cigarettes be removed from the marketplace, benefitting public health in the US.

The draft report cites a recent Nicotine and Tobacco Research review of 10 previous smoking cessation studies that found that younger smokers who use menthol cigarettes find it especially hard to quit.

The report also found that teenagers smoke menthol cigarettes at a higher rate than any other age group, based on three independent studies with nearly 160,000 respondents. Almost half of adolescent smokers regularly use menthol cigarettes.

The prevalence of menthol cigarette smoking is highest among African Americans across all socio-demographic and smoking-related categories, whether stratified by income, age, gender, marital status, region, education, age of initiation or length of time smoking. As such, arguments of discrimination have been included in the discussion to ban flavouring agents and exempting menthol as more than 80% of African American smokers prefer minty-flavoured cigarettes.

However, the Committee’s position of removing menthol cigarettes to benefit public health is just a recommendation. “The FDA will consider the report and recommendations of the Committee and continue to review all of the available science concerning menthol cigarettes. The FDA will then make a determination about what future regulatory actions, if any, are warranted,” wrote the FDA in a press release.

The FDA will also consider a report from the tobacco industry entitled Menthol Cigarettes: No Disproportionate Impact on Public Health. The 200-page document’s main arguments are that menthol in cigarettes does not change the inherent health risks of cigarette smoking and it has no meaningful impact on nicotine dependence.

Contradictory industry documentation

In the May 2011 edition of Tobacco Control magazine, researchers dedicated an entire 60-page supplement to minty-flavoured smokes simply entitled Menthol Cigarettes. More precisely, Director Stanton Glantz and others from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, examined tobacco industry documents and published seven independent research papers unearthing facts about menthol cigarettes based on the industry’s own research.

The studies’ authors concluded that information from industry documents consistently demonstrates that menthol increases harm from smoking by increasing initiation and reducing cessation in some groups. Menthol is a prominent design feature used by cigarette manufacturers to attract and retain new, young smokers. In addition, the tobacco industry knows that consumers perceive menthol cigarettes as healthier and this was the intent behind their marketing. Emphasizing menthol attracts new consumers including young, inexperienced users who find regular cigarettes undesirable. Tobacco companies know that menthol has sensory effects and interacts with nicotine to produce tobacco products that are easier to smoke and that the amount of menthol in a cigarette is associated with how a cigarette is smoked and how satisfying it is to a smoker.

Thus, they argue that if menthol in cigarettes were to be banned, as the FDA is currently considering, new or experimental smokers might choose not to smoke rather than experience the harshness of tobacco and its irritating qualities. Established menthol smokers might choose to quit rather than face unpleasant smoking alternatives.

Menthol products account for about 30% of the $85 billion in annual US cigarette sales, according to a Bloomberg report. 

The FDA will issue an initial report on its review of the advisory panel’s findings this summer.

Canadian legislation

On October 8, 2009, Parliament passed the Act to Amend the Tobacco Act. This amendment aims to protect children and youth from tobacco industry marketing practices that encourage them to use tobacco products. These marketing practices include the use of additives, such as flavourings, that contribute to making cigarettes, little cigars and blunt wraps more appealing to children and youth. They also include availability of little cigars and blunt wraps (sheets or tubes of tobacco) as singles or in small-quantity ‘kiddy-packs’ and tobacco advertising in publications that may be viewed by children and youth.

Menthol cigarettes have been exempt from legislation so far.

In an email, Health Canada wrote, “a key measure of the Act is the prohibition on the sale of cigarettes, little cigars and blunt wraps that contain a prohibited additive, including most flavours. The measures are designed to protect children and youth by focusing on new or emerging fruit and candy-flavoured tobacco products that may induce youth to smoke. Menthol-flavoured cigarettes have been on the Canadian market since the 1920s and are used by about 2% of smokers in Canada.”

There are currently no plans to ban menthol in cigarettes.


What is a menthol cigarette?


Wikipedia defines a menthol cigarette as a cigarette flavoured with the compound menthol, a substance which triggers the cold-sensitive nerves in the skin without actually providing a drop in temperature. Menthol cigarettes have also been shown to inhibit nicotine metabolism, causing systemic enhancement in exposure to nicotine.

First developed as the Spud Brand menthol cigarette in 1924, the idea did not become popular until the Axton-Fisher Tobacco Company acquired the patent in 1927, marketing them nationwide as Spud Menthol Cooled Cigarettes. Even then, it remained the only menthol cigarette on the market until the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company created the Kool brand in 1933. Not coincidentally, this was one year after Spud became one of the top five best-selling cigarette brands. R.J. Reynolds launched the first menthol filter-tip cigarettes in 1950 under the Salem brand. Other popular brands include Newport (best-selling menthol cigarette in the US), Marlboro Menthol and Misty. In Canada, menthol cigarette brands from the last five years include Peter Jackson Menthol, Accord Menthol, Matinée Menthol or Menthol 100’s and Benson & Hedges Menthol or Menthol 100’s.