What is Menthol?

Menthol is a substance found in mint plants or is synthetically made that gives a cooling sensation.[1] Menthol is used in medicines, candies, and a number of other products, including tobacco products.

On April 29, 2021, the FDA announced their intention to issue a product standards this year banning menthol cigarettes as well as one banning all flavored cigars. While this is a major step forward for public health, health equity, and the commercial tobacco endgame, the rulemaking process for these standards could take years, especially with delays from likely tobacco industry litigation. State and local action to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and all other tobacco products remains important while we wait for the FDA to finalize and implement these regulations. Read more on federal regulation of menthol below.

Recent research has found that between 1980 and 2018, menthol cigarettes slowed the decline of smoking prevalence by 2.6%, were responsible for 10.1 million extra smokers, 3 million life years lost, and 378,000 premature deaths.[34 With the tobacco industry’s relentless targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes to the African-American community, a disproportionate amount of the harm from menthol has also fallen on African-Americans. While 12% of the US population is African-American, African-Americans account for 41% of the premature deaths and 50% of the life-years lost during this same time period.[38]

Menthol and Tobacco Use Initiation

Menthol is linked to higher rates of tobacco use initiation.[4] 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.[5],[6] According to the TPSAC report, the “distinct sensory characteristics of menthol may enhance the addictiveness of menthol cigarettes.”
Newport menthol ad on the side of a store

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.[7] 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.[8]

Due to the tobacco industry’s extensive and targeted marketing to African-American communities, menthol cigarettes are most popular among people who are African-Americans and smoke, 85% of whom prefer menthol cigarettes.[9]  Only about 22% people who are white and smoke prefer menthol.[10] Since 2011, sales of menthol cigarettes have increased, and increasing numbers of people who are Asian & Hispanic who smoke are preferring menthol over non-menthol.[11],[12]

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.[13] 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.

Youth Impact

Menthol cigarettes are also popular among youth. Over half of youth and young adults who smoke use menthol cigarettes.[14]

One study found that teens who currently smoke in NYC were 10 times as likely to have tried menthol cigarettes compared to teens who do not currently smoke.[15] Flavors, like menthol, may also contribute to initiation by making a product seem less harmful to adolescents.[16]

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.[17]

Learn more about the role of point-of-sale tobacco in youth initiation by reviewing the following:

Marketing towards African-Americans

KOOL menthol cigarette promotion for their special edition to "celebrate the soundtrack to the streets"

The tobacco industry has 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.[18]  In addition, research has shown Newport (menthol) cigarettes to be cheaper in geographic areas with a higher proportion of African American residents.[19, 20] For example, an analysis of tobacco pricing survey data at the block group level collected in Boston between July 2015 and June 2016 found that for every 10% increase in the proportion of black residents, prices for menthol cigarettes decreased by 3 cents. Additionally, for every 10% increase in the proportion of black residents, the proportion of retailers selling menthol cigarettes at a price at least 25 cents below the established minimum price rose by 19%.[21]

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.[22] A systematic review found more menthol marketing in areas with higher numbers of low-income and black residents.[23] 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.[24] In addition, research has shown Newport (menthol) cigarettes to be cheaper and more often discounted in geographic areas with a higher proportion of African American residents.[25, 37]

KOOL advertisement and promotion "Play on the House: Spades Slam. Players wanted. You could win $50,000 and a trip to Vegas"

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.”[26] 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.[27] 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.[28]

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.” Learn more more about the tobacco industry’s exploitation of the Black community through front groups, distortion, and corporate giving in this Public Health Law Center resource: The Tobacco Industry & The Black Community: The Targeting of African Americans.

Still today, studies show that more point of sale menthol marketing is found in areas with higher numbers of African-American residents.[29] 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.[30] Learn more about menthol marketing to Black communities by watching the videos below.

 

For more information, review the following:

Policy

Federal

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 people who smoke menthol cigarettes would quit
      • 47% of African Americans who smoke menthol cigarettes would quit
      • preventing over 17,000 fewer premature deaths by 2020
      • preventing nearly 2.3 million people from initiating smoking by 2020 [31]

After the FDA did not take action on their own conclusion that removing menthol would benefit the public health, in April, 2013, the Public Health Law Center and 18 other organizations submitted a citizen petition to the FDA calling on the agency to add menthol to the list of characterizing flavors. 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 oNewport menthol adverstisement n menthol.

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.[32] 

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.[33]

In August 2017 the FDA announced their intention to issue another advance notice of proposed rule-making (ANPRM) 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. The agency officially issued the ANPRM on the regulation of flavored tobacco products on March 20th, 2018 for a 3-month public comment period. On November 15, 2018 the FDA announced that they would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to ban menthol in cigarettes, cigars, and any other combustible tobacco product. However, no further action has been taken to move that policy forward. he African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), compelling the FDA to add menthol to the list of characterizing flavors banned in tobacco products. The current lawsuit admonishes the negligence of the FDA and implores the agency to finally take meaningful action against a product that is harming thee public, and disproportionately Black and Brown Americans. In January 2021, the Public Health Law Center also submitted a supplement to their 2013 Menthol Citizen Petition asking the FDA to add menthol to the list of prohibited characterizing flavors. On April 29, 2021 in response to the lawsuit and citizen petition, the FDA announced their intention to issue a product standards this year banning menthol cigarettes as well as one banning all flavored cigars. While this is a major step forward for public health, health equity, and the commercial tobacco endgame, the rulemaking process for these standards could take years, especially with delays from likely tobacco industry litigation. State and local action to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and all other tobacco products remains important while we wait for the FDA to finalize and implement these regulations.

State

In November 2019, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes. The only exception to the law is that flavored tobacco products can still be sold at licensed smoking bars such as cigar bars and hookah lounges, though consumption must occur on-site. The law went into effect in June 2020.

In August 2020, California passed a law prohibiting the sale of most flavored tobacco products, making it the second state to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and the fourth to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. The only products exempt from the policy are loose leaf tobacco, “premium” cigars, and hookah tobacco. The law’s implementation is on hold and will be voted on during a November 2022 referendum.

Local

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.[34]
  • 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.[35]
  • 2016 – Yolo County, CA banned all flavored tobacco products, including menthol, in its unincorporated areas.[36]
  • 2017 – Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN restricted flavored and menthol cigarettes and tobacco products to adult-only retailers.
  • 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 and the groundwork involved in getting it passed here.

Local Menthol Policy Case Studies: Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, MN and Oakland, CA 

This recorded webinar offers case studies for successfully passed local policies restricting the sale of menthol tobacco products. Find out Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Oakland were able to pass their policies, who helped, lessons learned, and more:

Download a case study on the menthol policies passed in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, MN here.

Resources

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