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Companies Use Menthol To Attract Young Smokers

July 17, 2008

Tobacco companies control menthol levels in cigarettes, so lighting up for the first time will appeal more to young smokers who preferred milder tastes, according to a study released Wednesday.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found industry documents from decades past about product development and on strategic plans for menthol products.

“Menthol stimulates the cooling receptors in the lung and oral pharynx,” said Dr. Gregory Connolly of Harvard. “It makes smoking easier.”

The finding could flame support for additional tobacco regulation. The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, comes as the U.S. Congress considers legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to change tobacco laws.

The study found that the tobacco companies researched how manipulating menthol levels could increase sales among specific groups. Younger smokers were partial to milder brands with lower menthol levels, so that’s whom the companies appealed to.

Tobacco companies denied the findings including R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Lorillard.

Lorillard Inc. spokesman Michael Robinson said in a statement: “The American public should view this report for what it is, a politically motivated lobbying tool.”

“It would appear this report is simply an effort to push support for federal regulation of the tobacco industry, not a scientific review of the menthol category,” said David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, a unit of Reynolds American Inc and maker of Camel and Kool cigarettes.

William Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company, said the study’s conclusions were not supported by facts. He said the study includes excerpts from marketing documents, which talked about targeting youth or adolescents.

“At our company, our marketing goal is to find way to effectively and responsibly connect brands with adults who smoke,” Phelps said. “Those brands are designed to meet the diverse preferences of adults who smoke. What we disagree with is the authors’ conclusion that menthol levels were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents.”

The study found historical contradictions to the current argument of tobacco companies.

One document attributed to R.J. Reynolds noted that all three major menthol brands “built their franchise with YAS (younger adult smokers) … using a low-menthol product strategy. However, as smokers acclimate to menthol, their demand for menthol increases over time.”

R.J. Reynolds marketed low-level menthol varieties in 1987, to convince consumers to switch from regular brands and to recruit new, young smokers, noting: “First-time smoker reaction is generally negative. … Initial negatives can be alleviated with a low level of menthol.”

The research also concluded, Philip-Morris USA used a two-part strategy to increase Marlboro’s share in cigarette sales by targeting young adults and older smokers. In 2000, the company started Marlboro Milds, which quickly became popular among young smokers. The milds were responsible for almost 80 percent of the company’s menthol-category growth that year.

Co-author of the paper Howard Koh said, “For decades, the tobacco industry has carefully manipulated menthol content not only to lure youth but also to lock in lifelong adult customers.”

One of the report’s co-authors Greg Connolly said the tobacco industry was careful not to talk about adolescents in the documents dating from the ’80s and ’90s.

“They talk about young smokers. For me, that’s just a euphemism for going after adolescent, first-time smokers,” Connolly said.

Congress is considering legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, including banning fruit and candy flavorings. But it would allow the continued sale of menthol-flavored brands that has gained criticism from some smoking control advocates, who want it banned. 

But Phelps argued that move, “We don’t believe it’s right to ban a particular ingredient because some people prefer the flavor that ingredient provides.”

Currently, Philip Morris is the only major tobacco company that supports FDA regulation. Its’ support of the measure is considered essential in getting it passed. 

Brands marketed as menthol cigarettes make up nearly one-third of the U.S. cigarette market. Despite the decline of overall cigarette sales, the sale of menthol cigarettes has been stable in recent years.

Smoking is the biggest cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 400,000 people each year.

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