Young people are heavy users of menthol cigarettes, and their popularity is undermining efforts to reduce smoking in youths.
That is the conclusion of a new University at Buffalo study that comes out as the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to limit or ban the sale of menthol cigarettes because of rising concern that the flavoring is more likely to encourage young people to start smoking and that menthol smokers are more addicted.
Authors of the UB study say their work adds to the scientific evidence and should be reviewed by the FDA, which just pushed back the deadline for public comment on potential government regulation to Nov. 22.
The results, which were published online in the journal Tobacco Control, are based on national data from 2004 to 2010 of about 390,000 people age 12 and older. Among the conclusions:
• Menthol cigarette use was more common among 12– to 17-year-olds. Among smokers, nearly 57 percent in this age group used menthol cigarettes. By comparison, about 31 percent of older persons used mentholated cigarettes.
• Those most likely to smoke menthol cigarettes were young, female and black.
• For adolescents, the percentage who smoked non-menthol cigarettes decreased, while menthol smoking rates remained constant. For all young adults, the percentage who smoked non-menthol cigarettes also declined, while menthol smoking rates increased.
• Two brands, Camel menthol and Marlboro menthol cigarettes, experienced notable increased use among adolescent and young adult smokers, particularly non-Hispanic whites.
“Overall menthol cigarette smoking has either remained constant or increased in all the age groups we studied, while non-menthol smoking has decreased,” said Gary Giovino, lead researcher and chairman of the UB Department of Community Health and Health Behaviors.
“Our study indicates that mentholated cigarettes are a ‘starter product’ for kids,” he said. “Menthol lessens the harshness of the smoke. It sweetens the poison.”
Giovino said some young people also believe menthol cigarettes are safer because they don’t feel as harsh as non-menthol cigarettes.
Funding for the research was provided by Legacy, a non-profit organization focused on reducing tobacco use.
“Our findings support that the presence of menthol cigarettes in the marketplace has slowed progress in reducing smoking prevalence in the U.S. This is of great concern given the tremendous health effects of smoking cigarettes,” Andrea Villanti, co-author of the study, said in a statement.
She is associate director for regulatory science and policy at Legacy’s Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies.
When the government passed the Family Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, the FDA banned all flavored cigarettes except for menthol to discourage minors from purchasing the products. But the law required the federal agency to review the science behind menthol cigarettes.
A committee concluded in 2011 that removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health.
In July, the FDA released a report on current science on menthol cigarettes, and it concluded that there is little evidence to suggest that menthol cigarettes are more or less harmful than non-menthol cigarette.
However, it said menthol probably encourages young people to start smoking and leads to greater addiction than non-menthol cigarettes.
The science is clear that menthol cigarettes pose a threat to public health, and they should be banned, according to a recent statement from Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science at the American Cancer Society.
Cigarette-makers take a different stance.
The best available scientific evidence demonstrates that menthol cigarettes have the same health effects as non-menthol cigarettes, and consumers should have the right to make a personal choice to use any legal product, according to a statement by Lorillard Inc., maker of Newport menthol cigarettes.
Newport is the top-selling menthol and second-largest-selling cigarette brand overall in the United States, the company says.