What is Menthol?
Menthol is a substance found in mint plants or is synthetically made that gives a cooling sensation. Menthol is used in medicines, candies, and a number of other products, including tobacco products. Despite the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act ban on flavored cigarettes, menthol cigarettes remained on the American market after push back from tobacco companies led to an exception being made for menthol.  Rather than include menthol in the policy, the FDA created Center for Tobacco Products and the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC), and assigned TPSAC to make a recommendation to the FDA regarding menthol based upon scientific research and evidence. In 2011, TPSAC issued a report that concluded that removing menthol tobacco products from the market would be beneficial to public health, and in 2013, the FDA confirmed menthol tobacco’s negative health effects and asked for public comment on their preliminary findings.
Menthol and Tobacco Use Initiation
Menthol is linked to higher rates of tobacco use initiation. The cooling sensation helps mask the harshness of the smoke and tobacco taste. It can also cause users to inhale more deeply and become more dependent on nicotine as they inhale more of it, making it harder for users to quit., According to the TPSAC report, the “distinct sensory characteristics of menthol may enhance the addictiveness of menthol cigarettes.”
How Common is Menthol?
Menthol cigarettes are extremely popular, available in 98.6% of tobacco retailers and are the most advertised product on store exteriors. They are usually easily recognized by their green or blue colored packaging. Menthol cigarette marketing targets a range of groups including African-Americans, other communities of color, youth, and women, in particular.
Menthol cigarettes are most popular among African-American smokers, 85% of whom prefer menthol cigarettes. Only about 22% of white smokers have a menthol preference. Since 2011, sales of menthol cigarettes have increased, and increasing numbers of Asian & Hispanic smokers are preferring menthol over non-menthol.,
Traces of menthol have also been found in cigarettes that are not labeled as such, and the amount of menthol can vary between products and brands. Mint flavored smokeless tobacco products have been found to contain up to 50% more menthol than a piece of mint flavored candy, and “wintergreen” flavored smokeless tobacco products had up to 8 times more than a similarly flavored piece of candy.
Menthol cigarettes are also popular among youth. Over half of youth and young adult smokers smoke menthol cigarettes.
Current teen smokers in NYC were 10 times as likely to have tried menthol cigarettes compared to non-current smokers. Flavors, like menthol, may also contribute to initiation by making a product seem less harmful to adolescents.
Initiation with flavored tobacco products, especially menthol, is especially concerning because young people who initiate smoking with menthol cigarettes are 80% more likely to become regular smokers and 25% more likely to become dependent on nicotine than young people who initiate smoking with non-menthol cigarettes.
Learn more about the role of point-of-sale tobacco in youth initiation by reviewing the following:
Marketing towards African-Americans
The tobacco industry also been marketing their menthol products to African Americans through targeted campaigns since the 1970s, concentrating advertising and promotions in predominately African-American neighborhoods and with campaigns that exploit cultural hallmarks and stereotypes. Data shows that tobacco retailers within predominately African-American areas are 2-3 times more likely to display interior and exterior advertisements than stores in areas with lower African-American populations. In addition, research has shown Newport (menthol) cigarettes to be cheaper in geographic areas with a higher proportion of African American residents.
The first concerted minority advertising push took place during the early 1970’s. During this time, major tobacco companies fought for share of the young urban African American market in what has been coined the “Menthol Wars”. Rival companies noticed Kool’s popularity in the African American market niche, and began vying for brand loyalty and profit. What started as a niche market has, over time, become a highly valued target audience segment for tobacco advertising, as discussed in these Phillip Morris documents about their Black Marketing Task Force.
During the Menthol War era, tobacco companies also began taking into account the physical attributes of stores in low-income minority communities in order to design the physical characteristics of their POS promotional campaigns. For example, in 1984, Phillip Morris released a series of window display ads with suction cups on them so that they could be placed behind bulletproof windows and still be seen by consumers. Additionally, displays, originally designed for larger stores, were re-designed and scaled down to fit better in smaller inner-city convenience stores, as part of Phillip Morris’s Ethnic Program Development. A 2013 study of Washington D.C. tobacco retailers found that retailers within predominately African-American areas of the city were 2-3 times more likely to display interior and exterior advertisements than stores in areas with lower African-American populations. A systematic review found more menthol marketing in areas with higher numbers of low-income and black residents. A recent study in both rural and urban Ohio found a higher prevalence of ads for cigarillos, cigars, and e-cigarettes in African American communities and found that urban, disadvantaged, African-American communities had advertisements for more types of tobacco products overall. In addition, research has shown Newport (menthol) cigarettes to be cheaper in geographic areas with a higher proportion of African American residents.
Wright, former Trade Marketing Manager and Controlling Manager of Brown and Williamson (tobacco company), discusses the importance of using price discounts in low-income African-American neighborhoods with high menthol sales deemed as, “focus communities.” Wright explains that a higher number of interior and exterior ads showcasing mentholated tobacco products were displayed in retail outlets located in “focus communities.” The use of price discounts and retailer incentive programs were also used to establish Kool’s presence at the point of sale. Kool’s share of market for mentholated products increased in stores where Kool offered a Buy-One-Get-One free promotion. The use of these price cutting strategies coupled with strategic POS brand presence such as flashy colors, motorized displays, plastic countertop mats, and more mentholated product pack facings allowed for Kool to gain ground with African-American consumers.
Communities like San Francisco and Oakland, CA are restricting flavored tobacco products including menthol. The tobacco industry is working hard to prevent menthol bans from being instated, and are sending well-known Black organizational leaders into Black communities to convince them that a menthol ban would work to their detriment. Learn more about these tobacco industry-funded events by reading “A Discussion on Menthol Bans & Criminalization of Black Communities”.
Still today, studies show that more point of sale menthol marketing is found in areas with higher numbers of African-American residents. This marketing works. CDC MMWR data shows that 60% of African American youth prefer Newport, a brand of menthol cigarettes, compared to 22% of white youth. Learn more about menthol marketing to Black communities by watching the videos below.
For more information, review the following:
- CDC OSH Webinar: POS Strategies Guide and Tobacco Control and Social Justice: What’s Menthol Got To Do With It?
- Black Lives Black Lungs
While the 2009 FSPTCA exempted menthol from the ban on flavored cigarettes, it also gave the FDA the power to prohibit the use of menthol in tobacco products if the standard would be “appropriate for public health.” The FSPTCA also created the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) and directed the group to report on the “impact of the use of menthol on the public health.” The resulting report, issued in 2011 found that, removing menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health. They estimate that the effects of such a ban would include:
- 39% of menthol smokers would quit
- 47% of African American menthol smokers would quit
- preventing over 17,000 fewer premature deaths by 2020
- preventing nearly 2.3 million people from initiating smoking by 2020 
In July 2013, the FDA released a non-binding advance notice of proposed rulemaking of the potential regulation of menthol in cigarettes and received over 174,000 public comments, but took no further action.
The tobacco industry sued the FDA over use of the TPSAC report, challenging the integrity of TPSAC, but a January 15, 2016 court decision allows the FDA to use the report as evidence and take action on menthol. Read more in TCLC’s Federal Regulation of Menthol Tobacco Products.
According to a 2016 study, a nation-wide ban on menthol, through the FDA or the collective action of states and localities has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and nearly 1/3 of them would be Black lives.
While the 2016 deeming regulations, as originally proposed by the FDA, included language that would have included menthol as a “characterizing flavor” the White House Office of Management and Budget stripped that language along with other statements on the harmful effects of menthol from the enacted regulations.
In August 2017 the FDA announced their intention to issue another advance notice of proposed rule-making to seek public comment on the role that flavors in tobacco products—including menthol—play in attracting youth, as well as the role they may play in helping some smokers switch to potentially less harmful forms of nicotine delivery.
A number of localities have begun making moves towards partial or complete menthol bans to help combat the health issues and disparities that come with the targeted marketing of menthol products to youth and African-Americans. Some of the localities with policies on the books include:
- 2013 – Chicago, IL became the first city to ban all flavored tobacco products, including menthol, from within 500 ft. of schools.
- 2015 – Berkeley, CA modeled their menthol restriction after Chicago banning the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol, and e-cigarette products within 600 ft. of schools, as well as raising the age to purchase tobacco to 21.
- 2016 – Santa Clara County, CA became the first municipality to restrict flavored and menthol cigarettes and tobacco products to retailers that exclusively serve people age 21 and up.
- 2016 – Yolo County, CA banned all flavored tobacco products, including menthol, in its unincorporated areas.
- 2017 – Minneapolis, MN to restricted flavored and menthol cigarettes and tobacco products to retailers that exclusively serve people age 21 and up.
- 2017 – Contra Costa County, CA prohibited the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol near parks and schools in unincorporated areas of the county.
- 2017 – Oakland, CA has passed a city-wide ban on menthol and flavored tobacco product sales outside of retailers that exclusively serve ages 21 and up.
- 2017 – San Francisco, CA has passed a city-wide restriction on menthol and flavored tobacco. The tobacco industry has collected 20,000 signatures opposing the ban, which will now be placed on the June 2018 ballot for final decision. Read more about the progress of the San Francisco proposal here.
- Tobacco Control Legal Consortium’s Menthol Toolkit
- Regulating Flavored Tobacco Products
- US Sales Restrictions on Flavored Tobacco Products
- Chicago’s Regulation of Menthol Flavored Tobacco Products: A Case Study
- Leading from Up North: How Canada is Solving the Menthol Tobacco Problem
- Webinar: From Canada to California: Building Momentum on Menthol Restrictions
- Why Retail Tobacco Control is Important
- US Department of Health and Human Services- Menthol Report
- CDC OSH Webinar: POS Strategies Guide and Tobacco Control and Social Justice: What’s Menthol Got To Do With It?
- Finished with Menthol: An Evidence-Based Policy Option that will Save Lives
- Menthol Media Campaigns: