Monday, June 3, 2024

Study Highlights Tobacco Industry’s Research on Using Menthol To Manipulate Smokers

A study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence has found that beginning in the 1970s, tobacco companies added menthol to regular, nonflavored cigarettes imperceptibly, or subliminally, to alter perceived harshness, strength, mouthfeel, and after-taste. The study also found that tobacco companies began looking into using menthol as a subliminal additive as early as the mid-1950s, when filtered cigarettes, which generally have a milder tobacco taste than unfiltered cigarettes, shot up in popularity among smokers.

“The companies studied which concentrations of menthol (including levels detectable and subliminal … to smokers) increase experimentation, promote initiation and progression to regular smoking, and attract specific demographic groups,” wrote Andre Luiz Oliveira da Silva, Ph.D., of the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency in Rio de Janeiro, and colleagues.

Studies going back to 2009 have suggested that smoking menthol cigarettes makes it harder for people to quit smoking. More than 50 countries have now placed some restrictions on the use of menthol in tobacco products, though in most instances menthol is not banned outright but rather prohibited from being used as a primary flavor.

The researchers examined reports and other materials obtained from the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents archive, a web-based repository of millions of previously secret, internal documents in the tobacco industry dated from 1955 to 2012. These documents were revealed during litigation between U.S. states and the major tobacco companies and other sources.

As early as 1957, a “motivation survey” market research report showed that research was already being conducted about the importance of converting people who smoke nonmenthol cigarettes to menthol cigarettes.

The researchers found that the tobacco companies studied menthol’s sensory effects to determine how many parts per million of menthol they could add to their tobacco without smokers detecting it. The tobacco companies also considered which menthol concentrations to use with the goal of converting people who smoked nonmenthol cigarettes to menthol cigarettes. The reports showed the companies did not identify a precise menthol concentration to convert a nonmentholated smoker, and as a result they used a continuum of menthol levels across their brands.

“There is no scientific or health justification for allowing menthol, its derivatives, and/or synthetic cooling chemicals as tobacco/nicotine product additives or flavor add-ons at any concentration,” the researchers wrote. “The industry research and product development activities described here indicate that just prohibiting menthol as a characterizing flavor is at best an incomplete regulatory approach.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “FDA Bans Some Flavored E-Cigarettes but Advocates Say Policy Falls Short.”

(Image: Getty Images/iStock/dreamsfolklore)

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