Tobacco companies manipulate the amount of menthol in cigarettes to make those first few puffs more palatable to young smokers, US researchers said on Wednesday in a finding that could fuel support for more tobacco regulation.
“Menthol stimulates the cooling receptors in the lung and oral pharynx,” said Dr Gregory Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health. “It makes smoking easier.”
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, comes as the US Congress considers legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad authority to regulate tobacco.
Representatives of tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Lorillard disputed the findings.
“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,” said David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, a unit of Reynolds American Inc and maker of Camel and Kool cigarettes.
Smoking is the biggest cause of preventable death in the US, killing 400,000 people each year.
Menthol cigarette brands have been rising in popularity with adolescents and the highest use has been among younger, newer smokers. A 2006 national survey found that 44 per cent of smokers aged 12 to 17 reported using menthol cigarettes, as did 36 per cent of smokers aged 18 to 24.
According to the study, in 1987 R.J. Reynolds identified low menthol varieties as a new strategy to recruit new, young smokers.
“First-time smoker reaction is generally negative,” it said in a company document. “Initial negatives can be alleviated with a low level of menthol.”