New research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that tobacco companies used menthol—an additive that can help mask the harsh taste of cigarettes—to hook younger smokers.
“For decades, the tobacco industry has carefully manipulated menthol content not only to lure youth but also to lock in lifelong adult customers,” said Howard Koh, associate dean for Public Health Practice at HSPH and co-author of the paper, titled “Tobacco Industry Control of Menthol in Cigarettes and Targeting of Adolescents and Young Adults,” which will be published in the Sept. edition of the American Journal of Public Health (and is now available online).
To reach their conclusions, the team of researchers reviewed countless industry documents—which they say showed how tobacco companies looked at manipulating menthol levels to target specific age and population groups—and did lab tests on some cigarette brands.
In an interview with Reuters, the HSPH’s Dr. Gregory Connolly noted that mild menthol cigarettes are meant to appeal to young smokers, while a strong menthol taste is preferred by established smokers. “Menthol helps the nicotine go down,” Connolly said. (In the U.S., the additive menthol is unregulated; however, a bill before Congress may give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate it.)
Once they do start smoking, it seems, teens have an especially hard time quitting. A new report from the Université de Montréal, funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, followed 319 teens aged 12 to 13 who began smoking during the study’s five-year length. While 70 per cent wanted to quit, only 19 per cent succeeded in ditching the habit for a year or longer.
“Kids are experiencing symptoms of dependence with really low exposures to cigarettes, and beginning to experience this difficulty of quitting very, very early on,” lead author Jennifer O’Loughlin told The Canadian Press. “For kids, there’s no window of opportunity that you can kind of experiment with cigarettes and get away with it.”
The U of M study was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.