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US: Menthol Dose Manipulated, Study Says

by STEPHANIE SAULThe New York Times
July 17th, 2008

A new Harvard study claims that the tobacco industry in recent years has manipulated menthol levels in cigarettes to hook youngsters and maintain loyalty among smoking
adults. The report could further inflame a controversy over menthol in pending tobacco legislation.

The study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, released Wednesday, concludes that manufacturers have marketed brands to what it called a “vulnerable population” of adolescents and young adults by “manipulating sensory elements of cigarettes to promote initiation and dependence.”

Young people, the study said, tolerate menthol cigarettes better than harsher nonmenthol cigarettes. In low-level menthol cigarettes, the menthol primarily masks harshness, making it easier to begin smoking. But as smokers become more accustomed to menthol, they prefer stronger menthol sensations, according to the study.

“Tobacco companies researched how controlling menthol levels could increase brand sales among specific groups,” the study said.

“They discovered that products with higher menthol levels and stronger perceived menthol sensations suited long-term smokers of menthol cigarettes, and milder brands with lower menthol levels appealed to younger smokers.”

The study concludes that 44 percent of smokers age 12 to 17 prefer menthol cigarettes, and it urges regulation of the tobacco industry and menthol, in particular.

Menthol cigarettes currently make up about 28 percent of the $70 billion cigarette industry in America.

A spokesman for the company that owns Philip Morris, whose Marlboro menthol brands are among those cited in the study, denied Wednesday that it has adjusted menthol levels as a way to lure young smokers.

But the study contends that Philip Morris used a two-pronged strategy to compete better in the menthol market, a segment of its business that had been lagging before 2000.

The company introduced a low-level menthol brand, Marlboro Milds, to compete with cigarettes like Newport, which contains a low level of menthol. At the same time, the study concluded, Philip Morris raised the menthol level in its Marlboro Menthol brand by 25 percent to appeal to adult smokers.

“Marlboro needed a lower-menthol product that would cater to young smokers’ sensory needs, as well as a higher-menthol cigarette for older smokers,” the study said.

Since then, Philip Morris’s share of the menthol market has increased, and it is currently the second-largest seller of menthol cigarettes in the United States.

A spokesman for Altria Group">Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, challenged both the hypothesis and the facts contained in the study.

“We disagree with the conclusions that menthol levels in our products were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents,” David M. Sylvia, the Altria spokesman, said Wednesday. “We do not do research among, nor design products for, nor market to those who are underage.”

The leading menthol brand is Newport, made by Lorillard. A company spokesman, Michael W. Robinson, said Wednesday that the claim that Lorillard manipulated its products for specific markets was false.

“Lorillard does not control levels of menthol to promote smoking among adolescents and young adults,” Mr. Robinson’s statement said.

The study, published by The American Journal of Public Health, also found various changes in menthol levels in cigarettes since 2000, which the authors contend were designed to attract specific categories of smokers. They are Lorillard’s Newport and cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds: Salem Black Label, Salem Green Label, Camel Menthol, Kool and Kool Milds.

Dr. Howard Koh, an author of the study, accused the tobacco industry of pursuing “a very sophisticated strategy to lure in youth with lower menthol levels and then lock in adult customers who become acclimated to menthol and give them the higher levels they want.”

In a statement, a spokesman for R. J. Reynolds said the allegations were untrue.

“It would appear this report is simply an effort to push support for federal regulation of the tobacco industry, not a scientific review of the menthol category,” David P. Howard, the Reynolds spokesman, said.

A bill currently pending in Congress would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products and remove cigarette additives, including menthol. But while the legislation would immediately ban many other flavorings, it specifically exempts menthol from such a ban.

The issue is particularly controversial because menthol cigarettes are heavily favored by black smokers, who have high rates of smoking-related cancers.

Dr. Koh, director of the division of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that his team was not calling for the outright ban of menthol that some antismoking activists have demanded.

“The view of our team is that the F.D.A. bill has the authority to regulate menthol and to do it in a scientifically sound fashion in a very, very complex area,” Dr. Koh said.

He said the study, begun more than two years ago, was prompted by data showing that menthol sales had not declined along with other segments of the tobacco industry.

“This is an area where the industry was clearly maintaining market share, if not increasing it among certain parts of the population,” Dr. Koh said, “so we wanted to dig deeper and explore exactly the mechanism.”

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