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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Menthol Cigarettes and the Initiation of Smoking: A White Paper

  • Author(s): Klausner, Kim, MA
  • et al.

Publicly available internal tobacco industry documents were analyzed to answer the following questions regarding menthol cigarettes and the uptake of smoking by youth: 1) Does menthol make it easier for young or new/inexperienced smokers to start smoking cigarettes? 2) Do menthol smokers start smoking earlier than non-menthol smokers? Is there a higher use among youth who have been smoking for less than one year? 3) Did current smokers start smoking menthol cigarettes before switching to non-menthol cigarettes? 4) Does menthol accelerate progression toward established smoking? 5) Did the tobacco industry market menthols to the youth market and what images did they use? 6) To what extent do non-menthol smokers use menthol cigarettes? Researchers reviewed 2,634 documents and 102 were deemed relevant to one or more of the research questions.

The internal business records of the tobacco industry make it clear that menthol flavoring is added to cigarettes in part because it is known to be an attractive feature to inexperienced, primarily youthful smokers who perceive menthol flavored cigarettes to be less harsh and easier to smoke and because of their availability from friends and family. Secondarily, the tobacco industry found that some youth smoke menthols because they perceive them to be less harmful than non-menthol cigarettes. Because of the acknowledged importance of capturing a large share of the youth market to long term profitability, all of the major cigarette companies have introduced menthol brands. A key product design issue concerned whether to increase brand menthol levels to appeal to the taste preferences of long-term menthol smokers or keep menthol levels lower to appeal to inexperienced smokers.

Internal marketing studies showed that the companies carefully researched the menthol segment of the market with an eye towards recruiting younger smokers to their brands. The tobacco industry tracked menthol cigarette usage by age, gender and race to inform product development and marketing decisions. Studies were done to test how menthol impacted the ease of smoking, consumer perceptions of menthol flavoring, and brand loyalty. Based upon this review, menthol as a characterizing flavor has been a prominent design feature used by cigarette manufacturers to attract and retain youthful smokers.

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