A new study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health in the US found tobacco companies deliberately manipulated menthol levels in cigarettes depending on whom they marketed them to.
Tobacco companies used lower levels of menthol to hook young smokers who preferred a milder brand, while using higher levels of menthol to hook lifelong adult smokers, according to the study.
Menthol masks the harsh taste of cigarettes, leaving the first-time smoker with a milder, more pleasant experience.
The fresh taste of menthol, has the ability to guise the original cigarette smell and to help ease smoke inhalation, giving young smokers the false impression that menthol cigarettes are healthier than that of regular brand cigarettes.
However, nicotine levels remain the same in both types of cigarettes, forging an addiction among those who try smoking either brand, according to the study.
According to estimates by Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, 253,128 kids will become regular smokers in 2008. And 84,376 of them will die prematurely from their addiction.
Smoking is one of the biggest causes of preventable deaths in the US, claiming the lives of more than 400,000 people each year. About 90 percent of cigarette smokers become addicted before the age of 19 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
A recent survey conducted by the American Legacy Foundation found 81 percent of African-American teen smokers prefer menthol cigarettes compared to 45 percent of Hispanics and 32 percent of white teens.
A bill seeking to ban menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products is currently pending Congress approval. If passed, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would be allowed more governing power to regulate menthol and other tobacco products.
“The bill would cease the marketing of tobacco products to young children, for the first time force companies to disclose ingredients in their products and allow the FDA to regulate all tobacco products, including, menthol cigarettes,” said John R. Seffrin of the American Cancer Society.
The study was spurred after data revealed menthol sales had not decreased while other segments within the tobacco industry had. In fact, menthol sales have risen in certain areas, said Dr. Howard Koh, author of the study, director of the division of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Menthol sales account for about 28 percent of the $70 billion cigarette industry in America.
For the study, researchers studied internal company data on menthol use that was included as part of a large tobacco settlement. They also reviewed smoking trends by population and conducted independent laboratory testing.
Researchers found tobacco companies researched the controlling of menthol levels and how it could help to increase brand sales within certain groups.
The study found that overall - 44 percent of smokers ages 12 to 17 prefer menthol cigarettes to regular brands, as did 36 percent of smokers ages 18 to 24
The study, "Tobacco Industry Control of Menthol in Cigarettes and Targeting of Adolescents and Young Adults," appears in the online "First Look" section of the American Journal of Public Health in advance of publication in the September 2008 issue.