By Amanda Gardner
WEDNESDAY, July 16 (HealthDay News) -- Tobacco companies are manipulating menthol levels in cigarettes to appeal to newer, younger smokers, part of a deliberate strategy to get younger people, particularly African-Americans, hooked, a new study contends.
Menthol makes cigarettes more palatable to the novice smoker.
"If anything, menthol is being used as a candy to help the toxin go down," said Dr. Gregory Connolly, senior author of a paper being published in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health. "If we let the industry go ahead and willy-nilly design the product the way they want to, it's going to lead to the premature death of millions and millions of Americans. Our research says we have to go after this."
A bill pending in Congress would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration power to regulate menthol and other additives in cigarettes.
"This study provides evidence of one of the many ways tobacco companies manipulate the ingredients in cigarettes in an effort to entice and addict new consumers," John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, said in a news release. "Legislation in Congress would give the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products and put an end to tobacco industry practices that prey upon children and blatantly mislead adults. The bill would end the marketing of tobacco products to children, force companies for the first time to disclose the ingredients in their products and allow the FDA to regulate all tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, based on science."
Menthol itself is not addictive, but it can ease the "delivery" of nicotine, which is highly addictive. More than 70 percent of African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared with about 30 percent of white smokers. It's unclear if menthol cigarettes are more harmful than "regular" cigarettes, the study authors said.
Connolly and his colleagues looked at internal tobacco-industry documents which showed that companies researched how menthol levels could affect sales among different demographic groups. Cigarettes with milder menthol levels appeal to younger smokers.
Then they measured menthol levels in mentholated cigarettes, which proliferated after the signing of the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, the historic settlement between tobacco companies and 46 U.S. states. Newport had the lowest levels of menthol, while traditional Kool cigarettes the highest, the researchers said.
Last, they looked at an existing survey of smoking in the general U.S. population.
"We found that, once again, menthol was the predominant brand smoked by African-American teens, and they smoked it at higher rates than older African-Americans," said Connolly, who is professor of the practice of public health and director of the Tobacco Control Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Surprisingly, we found that Caucasian teens smoked menthol at higher rates than expected, indicating that hip-hop was moving into the suburbs."
The deliberate manipulation of menthol levels was accompanied by more focused advertising of mentholated cigarettes (advertising for non-mentholated brands fell) and the introduction of new brands such as Marlboro Milds in 2000, the researchers said.
"The product itself stands outside the law, and industry is exploiting that, tailoring their brands to specific groups and integrating that with what marketing they have left and, unfortunately, they're being successful," Connolly said. "The outcome should be regulation of menthol by the FDA. It's the one hole."
The study authors also argued that this industry practice is a violation of the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), which prohibits companies from marketing directly or indirectly to youths.
The new study was funded by The American Legacy Foundation (formed in the wake of the MSA) and the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
David Sylvia, a spokesman for cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, said: "We don't believe that this study's hypothesis or conclusions are supported by the facts cited in the study. In fact, we disagree with their conclusion that menthol levels in our products were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents, and are unable to find any evidence supporting that conclusion within this study.