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Racism & Injustice

What is menthol tobacco?

Published Apr 12, 2022
Packets of menthol cigarettes, different brands

Whether it’s called mint or menthol, these “flavors” are added to cigarettes, vapes, chew, and other tobacco products to hook new tobacco users. The tobacco industry has used menthol and mint as a predatory tactic to keep smokers smoking and introduce new smokers to a new taste.

Menthol is derived from mint plants or synthetically produced1 for use in a variety of products, such as lip balm or cough medicine. But Big Tobacco exploits menthol’s cooling taste and sensation to addict youth and new smokers.1

Menthol added to cigarettes masks the harsh taste. It also numbs the throat making the toxic smoke making it easier to inhale.1 This makes it easier for new smokers to smoke.1 Unfortunately, it also allows smokers to inhale the smoke more deeply, which causes harmful particles to settle deeper inside the lungs.2

And that’s not all. Research shows that the sensory effects and flavor of menthol can also make cigarettes much harder to quit.3 People who smoke menthol cigarettes show greater signs of nicotine addiction and are less likely to successfully quit smoking than other smokers.45

There was a chance to stop Big Tobacco’s destructive use of menthol in 2009 when the federal government banned using flavors in cigarettes through the Tobacco Control Act. But Big Tobacco lobbied to keep menthol on the market – a huge loophole costing lives.

Sadly, while overall smoking decreased, the proportion of people using menthol cigarettes sharply increased compared to regular cigarettes. Menthol cigarette use is far more common among youth and young adults than regular cigarettes.6 It’s estimated that more than half of smokers between the ages of 12 and 17 smoke menthol cigarettes.5

Menthol has been the tobacco industry’s recruitment tool for far too long. 

  • Menthol cigarettes were originally developed for, and marketed to women, making women more likely to smoke menthols than men.7
  • African Americans have been systematically targeted by the industry for decades. Tobacco documents reveal aggressive marketing, including cheaper prices and more advertising of menthol cigarettes in African American neighborhoods.8 In California, 68% of African American adult cigarette smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to only 19% of white adult cigarette smokers.9
  • The tobacco industry has also targeted the LGBT+ with predatory advertising in magazines and sponsoring local Pride events and celebrations. Nearly 50% of all LGBT+ adult cigarette smokers in California smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 28% of straight adult smokers. 8

Tobacco companies are now working hard to keep existing menthol loopholes intact. Juul, which owns 60% of the e-cigarette market, 10 announced in November 2019 that they stopped selling their “mint” flavor but kept their “menthol” flavor on the market. What’s the difference between mint and menthol? Not much. Menthol comes from the mint plant so the flavoring is similar although the sensation may differ. According to 2019 “Monitoring the Future” data, mint is the most popular vape flavor among kids. A former FDA commissioner said, “If menthol is exempted from a flavor ban on e-cigs, Juul will immediately re-name their candy mint flavor (the top preferred by kids) to ‘menthol plus’ and sell it as a menthol.” 

Protect our communities from menthol tobacco products. To learn more, please visit undo.org/we-are-not-profit 

  1. Kreslake JM, Wayne GF, Alpert HR, Koh HK, Connolly GN. Tobacco industry control of menthol in cigarettes and targeting of adolescents and young adults. Am J Public Health. 2008;98(9):1685–1692. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.125542.
  2. Kreslake JM, Yerger VB. Tobacco industry knowledge of the role of menthol in chemosensory perception of tobacco smoke. Nicotine Tob Res. 2010;12 Suppl 2:S98–S101. doi:10.1093/ntr/ntq208.
  3. Levy DT, Blackman K, Tauras J, et al. Quit attempts and quit rates among menthol and nonmenthol smokers in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(7):1241–1247. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300178.
  4. Villanti AC, Collins LK, Niaura RS, Gagosian SY, Abrams DB. Menthol cigarettes and the public health standard: a systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2017;17(1):983. Published 2017 Dec 29. doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4987-z.
  5. Villanti AC, Mowery PD, Delnevo CD, Niaura RS, Abrams DB, Giovino GA. Changes in the prevalence and correlates of menthol cigarette use in the USA, 2004-2014. Tob Control. 2016;25(Suppl 2):ii14–ii20. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053329.
  6. Smith PH, Akpara E, Haq R, El-Miniawi M, Thompson AB. Gender and Menthol Cigarette Use in the United States: A Systematic Review of the Recent Literature (2011 - May 2017). Curr Addict Rep. 2017;4(4):431–438. doi:10.1007/s40429-017-0175-6.
  7. Cruz TB, Wright LT, Crawford G. The menthol marketing mix: targeted promotions for focus communities in the United States. Nicotine Tob Res. 2010;12 Suppl 2:S147–S153. doi:10.1093/ntr/ntq201.
  8. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System 2013-2015. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Public Health.
  9. 2018 California Health Interview Survey.
  10. Geller, M, “E-cigarette maker Juul files complaints against ‘copycat products,’” Reuters, October 4, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us- juul-ecigarettes-patents/e-cigarette-maker-juul-files-complaints-against-copycat-products-idUSKCN1ME12.

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