Page last updated at 09:48 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 10:48 UK

Menthol cigarettes 'target young'

Menthol is thought to make cigarette smoke less harsh

Menthol has been used to make some US cigarette brands more appealing to the young, say researchers.

A Harvard University team said menthol masks the harshness of cigarette smoke, meaning new smokers get more nicotine.

They said industry documents showed US firms tested menthol levels for their appeal to different ages.

A leading tobacco company denied such product targeting, while anti-smoking groups said the strategy had not yet been tried in the UK.

For decades, the tobacco industry has carefully manipulated menthol content not only to lure youth but also to lock in lifelong adult customers
Professor Howard Koh
Harvard University

The study, in the American Journal of Public Health, analysed a 2006 survey of US smokers, and found that significantly more adolescent and young adult smokers preferred menthol brands.

Between the age of 12 and 17, 43.8% of smokers said they used menthol cigarettes, as did 35.6% of 18 to 24-year-olds.

Cigarettes with higher levels of menthol have been available for many years, but these tend to appeal to older, established smokers.

In the past decade, brands with lower menthol content have been released, and gained a significant following among younger adults.

Industry tests

The Harvard researchers suggested that industry documents, released as part of US legal actions against tobacco firms, showed how companies carried out market research into the effect of menthol levels on the preferences of smokers of different ages.

This, they suggested, demonstrated that they were trying to aim products specifically at younger people.

Professor Howard Koh, one of the researchers, said: "For decades, the tobacco industry has carefully manipulated menthol content not only to lure youth but also to lock in lifelong adult customers."

They called on the US authorities to tighten regulation of tobacco additives.

In the UK, flavoured and mentholated cigarettes are far less popular, said Amanda Sandford, from the anti-smoking campaign group ASH.

She said: "However, if something works in the US, then it wouldn't be too surprising to see it introduced over here."

'Minimised reach'

A spokesman for the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, which represents the interests of British tobacco companies, said that it could not comment directly on the findings, as they referred to US brands.

She added: "The UK has had for many years a voluntary system for the regulation of ingredients, as a result of extensive co-operation between the companies, the government and government-appointed committees.

"Under the terms of the voluntary agreement, UK tobacco companies have regularly held discussions with the Department of Health about modifications to the list of approved additives and continue to engage in these discussions."

A spokesman for Philip Morris USA, which manufactures Marlboro, one of the biggest brands mentioned in the study, said it did not accept its findings.

He said: "We disagree with the authors' conclusion that menthol levels in our products were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents - and are unable to find evidence supporting that conclusion within the study.

"The company's various brands, including our menthol brands, are designed to meet the diverse taste preferences of adults who smoke.

"We believe kids should not use tobacco and our marketing methods are designed to minimise reach to unintended audiences - such as kids."

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