A Public Health Concern
While smoking rates are declining overall, the use of flavors in tobacco products has jeopardized recent progress. One flavor in particular, menthol, has had a harmful, and often overlooked, impact on health.
Menthol cigarettes account for more than 30% of cigarettes sold in the U.S. For decades, the tobacco industry has used menthol cigarettes to target vulnerable and underserved populations, including youth, LGBT individuals, and communities of color. Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S., yet the continued sale of menthol has prevented a positive impact on mortality and morbidity rates for targeted groups.
What is Menthol?
Menthol is a chemical compound extracted from various mint plants that can also be created synthetically. As a flavor in tobacco products, it makes a deadly combination when mixed with nicotine. Due to its minty flavor and cooling effect on the mouth and throat, menthol masks the harshness of cigarette smoke, triggering deeper and longer inhalation, giving a false sense of “safe smoking,” leading to increased addiction. As a result, menthol cigarettes are the most popular choice and common starter for newer smokers and young people. Menthol smokers are more nicotine dependent and less likely to quit than non-menthol smokers. Combined with the allure of mentholated tobacco products, industry marketing tactics set unsuspecting consumers up for a lifetime of addiction.
Menthol cigarette use perpetuates extreme health disparities. Despite the success that NYC has made in tobacco control and cessation, some populations have not reaped the benefits of policies put in place to optimize public health. Vulnerable communities nationwide have been the target of aggressive marketing campaigns focused on menthol cigarettes.
Youth: Menthol cigarettes are often a starter product for new and young smokers. They are more likely to be drawn to smoking menthol cigarettes because the cool and minty sensation masks the harshness of tobacco smoke.
African Americans: Tobacco industry documents reveal that for years, cigarette manufacturers have targeted communities of color with menthol cigarettes. African American communities have been particularly affected by the deceptive marketing tactics of the tobacco industry. The industry’s pervasive marketing of menthol to marginalized communities is well-documented and includes targeted ad campaigns and sponsorships of major and influential historically Black institutions such as education, civil rights, cultural, social, and community organizations. As a result, over 80% of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, and in NYC, menthol use is even higher among African American women at 89%. This increased availability of menthol cigarettes in African American communities perpetuates high rates of smoking and smoking-related health disparities.