US: Menthol Dose Manipulated, Study Says

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

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 smoking


adults. The report could further inflame a controversy over menthol in pending tobacco legislation.

The study by researchers at
the Harvard School of Public Health, released Wednesday, concludes 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."

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.

"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
age 12 to 17 prefer menthol cigarettes, and it urges regulation of the
tobacco industry and menthol, in particular.

Menthol cigarettes currently make up about 28 percent of the $70 billion cigarette industry in America.

A spokesman for the company that owns Philip Morris, whose Marlboro
menthol brands are among those cited in the study, denied Wednesday
that it has adjusted menthol levels as a way to lure young smokers.

But
the study contends that Philip Morris used 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 low-level
menthol brand, Marlboro Milds, to compete with cigarettes like Newport,
which 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.

"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.

Since then, Philip Morris's share of
the menthol market has increased, and it is currently the
second-largest seller of menthol cigarettes in the United States.

A spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, challenged both the hypothesis and the facts contained in the study.

"We
disagree with the conclusions that menthol levels in our products were
manipulated to gain market share among adolescents," David M. Sylvia,
the Altria spokesman, said Wednesday. "We do not do research among, nor
design products for, nor market to those who are underage."

The
leading menthol brand is Newport, made by Lorillard. A company
spokesman, Michael W. Robinson, said Wednesday that the claim that
Lorillard manipulated its products for specific markets was false.

"Lorillard
does not control levels of menthol to promote smoking among adolescents
and young adults," Mr. Robinson's statement said.

The study,
published by The American Journal of Public Health, also found various
changes in menthol levels in cigarettes since 2000, which the authors
contend were designed to attract specific categories of smokers. They
are Lorillard's Newport and cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds:
Salem Black Label, Salem Green Label, Camel Menthol, Kool and Kool
Milds.

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."

In a statement, a spokesman for R. J. Reynolds said the allegations were untrue.

"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," David P. Howard, the Reynolds spokesman, said.

A bill currently pending in Congress would give the Food and Drug Administration
the authority to regulate tobacco products and remove cigarette
additives, including menthol. But while the legislation would
immediately ban many other flavorings, it specifically exempts menthol
from such a ban.

The issue is particularly controversial
because menthol cigarettes are heavily favored by black smokers, who
have high rates of smoking-related cancers.

Dr. Koh, director
of the division of public health practice at the Harvard School of
Public Health, said that his team was not calling for the outright ban
of menthol that some antismoking activists have demanded.

"The
view of our team is that the F.D.A. bill has the authority to regulate
menthol and to do it in a scientifically sound fashion in a very, very
complex area," Dr. Koh said.

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.

"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,
"so we wanted to dig deeper and explore exactly the mechanism."

AMP Section Name:Tobacco
  • 182 Health