Research say tobacco companies rigged menthol to hook young

WASHINGTON -- Tobacco companies have manipulated menthol levels to attract young cigarette smokers and keep older ones, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reported Wednesday.

Their finding, with which industry spokesmen disagree, is based on a review of more than 500 internal tobacco-industry documents dated from 1985 through 2007.

The documents showed, according to the researchers, that tobacco companies studied how controlling levels of menthol could increase brand sales.

They concluded that new and young smokers liked mild menthol that masked the harshness of tobacco smoke. Veteran smokers, the companies are said to have concluded, favored stronger doses of menthol for its cooling effects on their throats.

The findings come as Congress weighs whether to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products, including additives, at the national level. The bill would let the FDA ban all cigarette flavorings except menthol. If FDA tests of menthol showed that it added to the health risks of smoking, the agency could ban menthol, too.

No conclusive evidence shows menthol cigarettes to be more harmful than conventional ones, said Terry Pechacek, associate director of the Office of Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 44% of smokers aged 12 to 17 reported smoking menthol cigarettes. Among smokers older than 35, 31% smoked them.

According to the Harvard study's lab tests of menthol concentrations in cigarettes since 2000, menthol went down in brands that young people preferred, such as Newport, Salem Black Label and Kool Milds. It went up in brands such as Marlboro Menthol, which were aimed at older smokers.

The report says that in 2000, Philip Morris launched Marlboro Milds with a lower concentration of menthol to attract young smokers. That same year, according to the report, Philip Morris increased the menthol in Marlboro Menthol to attract older smokers.

Behind the moves, the researchers assert, was an effort to woo new smokers. Their report cites, among others, a 1987 R.J. Reynolds document that suggests menthol can make it easier to get started. "Initial negatives can be alleviated with a low level of menthol," it says.

According to the researchers' report, a rapid introduction of milder menthol brands in the past decade violates a provision in the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 between tobacco companies and state governments that prohibits them from directly or indirectly targeting youths.

"They are going after the most vulnerable population," said Gregory Connolly, a coauthor of the report and director of Harvard's Tobacco Control Research Program.

Michael Robinson, a spokesman for Lorillard Tobacco Co., called the report "a politically motivated lobbying tool."

"Lorillard does not control levels of menthol to promote smoking among adolescents and young adults," he said in a statement. "Lorillard does not engineer any of its cigarettes to promote smoking initiation or nicotine addiction."
source: Detroit Free Press