It’s easy to understand why the law that gave the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco also forbade so many types of flavored cigarettes. Studies show that they attract young people to smoking and keep them inhaling by disguising the otherwise harsh taste and sensation in the mouth and throat. But in that case, why didn’t the law also ban menthol, by far the most popular flavoring for cigarettes? Precisely because they’re so popular. Menthol brands account for about a quarter of U.S. cigarette sales; once people start with menthol, moreover, they are unlikely to switch to an unflavored brand. In other words, a ban on mentholated cigarettes has a good chance of cutting into smoking rates — and tobacco industry profits.
Menthol also is the preferred cigarette flavoring among African American smokers, and advertising has been specifically targeted to this demographic. Nearly three-fourths of African American smokers buy menthol brands.
In meetings last week, an FDA advisory committee heard about studies showing that advertisements for mentholated cigarettes were especially common in publications marketed to young people and on billboards in low-income communities. UC San Francisco researchers who had pored through industry documents said company surveys found that smokers wrongly perceived menthol cigarettes to be “light” and therefore less harmful, that they especially appealed to young people, and that the minty taste cools the harshness of cigarette smoke. Separately, a2009 study found that smokers were able to quit regular cigarettes more easily than mentholated ones.