Big Tobacco Manipulated Menthol to Lure Specific Smokers

A new study, conducted out of Harvard University’s Harvard School of Public Health, says that Big Tobacco has been manipulating menthol levels in <"">cigarettes to both snag young smokers and maintain smoking adults.  Many believe the Harvard report could add to existing controversy over menthol in pending tobacco legislation.

The study—which has been ongoing for the past two years—found that manufacturers have marketed brands to what it called a “vulnerable population” of adolescents and young adults by “manipulating sensory elements of cigarettes to promote initiation and dependence.”  The study explains that young people tolerate menthol cigarettes better than harsher nonmenthol cigarettes because menthol masks the harshness of tobacco in low-level menthol cigarettes.  This masking better enables smokers to become more accustomed to smoking.  The study also found that the sensations of smoking menthol are preferable to younger smokers.  “Tobacco companies researched how controlling menthol levels could increase brand sales among specific groups,” the study said.  “They discovered that products with higher menthol levels and stronger perceived menthol sensations suited long-term smokers of menthol cigarettes, and milder brands with lower menthol levels appealed to younger smokers.”  The study found that 44 percent of smokers age 12 to 17 prefer menthol cigarettes, which comprise 28 percent of the $70 billion American cigarette industry.

The study, published by The American Journal of Public Health, found various changes in cigarette menthol levels since 2000, which the authors believe were intended to attract specific smoker groups.  The cigarettes cited are:  Lorillard’s Newport and R. J. Reynolds’ Salem Black Label, Salem Green Label, Camel Menthol, Kool, and Kool Milds.

The study also claims Philip Morris used a dual marketing strategy to better compete in the menthol market, where it had been lagging before 2000.  It introduced a low-level menthol brand, Marlboro Milds, to compete with cigarettes like Newport and also raised the menthol level in its Marlboro Menthol brand by 25 percent to appeal to adult smokers.  “Marlboro needed a lower-menthol product that would cater to young smokers’ sensory needs, as well as a higher-menthol cigarette for older smokers,” the study said.  The marketing ploys worked and now Philip Morris is the second-largest seller of menthol cigarettes in the US.

Dr. Howard Koh, an author of the study, accused the tobacco industry of pursuing “a very sophisticated strategy to lure in youth with lower menthol levels and then lock in adult customers who become acclimated to menthol and give them the higher levels they want ….  This is an area where the industry was clearly maintaining market share, if not increasing it among certain parts of the population,” Dr. Koh said.

A bill currently pending in Congress would allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products and remove cigarette additives, including menthol.  The legislation would immediately ban many other flavorings, but specifically exempts menthol from such a ban, a controversial component to the bill as black smokers, who have high rates of smoking-related cancers, heavily favor menthol cigarettes.

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