A new Harvard study claims that the tobacco industry in recent years has manipulated menthol levels in cigarettes to hook youngsters and maintain loyalty among adults who smoke.
The study by researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health, released Wednesday, concludes that manufacturers have marketed brands to adolescents and young adults by “manipulating sensory elements of cigarettes to promote initiation and dependence.”
Cigarette makers learned years ago that young people preferred lower levels of menthol while longtime smokers prefer higher levels, the Harvard team found by reviewing industry documents released in litigation. The researchers also analyzed various cigarettes to show how menthol levels changed over time.
Young people, the study said, tolerate menthol cigarettes better than harsher nonmenthol cigarettes. In low-level menthol cigarettes, the menthol primarily masks harshness, making it easier to begin smoking. But as smokers become more accustomed to menthol, they prefer stronger menthol sensations, according to the study.
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“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 concludes that 44 percent of smokers ages 12 to 17 prefer menthol cigarettes, and it urges regulation of the tobacco industry and menthol, in particular.
Companies deny charge
A spokesman for the company that owns Philip Morris, whose Marlboro menthol brands are among those cited in the study, denied that it has adjusted menthol levels as a way to lure young smokers.
But the study contends that Philip Morris employed a two-pronged strategy to compete better in the menthol market, a segment of its business that had been lagging before 2000.
The company introduced a new low-level menthol brand, Marlboro Milds, to compete with cigarettes like Newport, which is the leading menthol brand and contains a low level of menthol. At the same time, the study concluded, Philip Morris raised the menthol level in its Marlboro Menthol brand by 25 percent to appeal to adult smokers.
The strategy paid off, according to the study. Since then, Philip Morris' share of the menthol market has increased, and it is currently the second-largest seller of menthol cigarettes in the U.S.
A spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, challenged both the hypothesis and the facts in the study.
“We disagree with the conclusions that menthol levels in our products were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents,” David Sylvia said Wednesday. “We do not do research among, nor design products for, nor market to those who are underage. Our efforts are designed to appeal to current adult smokers, whether they are menthol smokers or non-menthol smokers.”
He said the company designed products with different taste characteristics to appeal to various segments of the adult smoker category.
A spokesman for Lorillard, the maker of Newports, said the claim that Lorillard manipulated its products to lure people to start smoking to promote addiction was false.
“Lorillard does not control levels of menthol to promote smoking among adolescents and young adults,” Michael Robinson said. “Furthermore, Lorillard does not engineer any of its cigarettes to promote smoking initiation or nicotine addiction. Importantly, the target menthol specifications for Newport have not changed at all since 2000.”
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.”
A bill currently pending in Congress would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate or remove cigarette additives, including menthol. But while the legislation would immediately ban many other flavorings, it specifically exempts menthol.
He said the study, begun more than two years ago, was prompted by data showing that menthol sales had not declined along with other segments of the tobacco industry. Menthol cigarettes currently make up about 28 percent of the $70 billion cigarette industry in America.