Mint That Kills: The Curious Life of Menthol Cigarettes

An FDA panel has declined to recommend a ban on menthol cigarettes—the latest coup for a well-marketed but deadly product

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Menthol cigarette smokers can exhale in relief: their Kools won't be losing their cool anytime soon.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has declined to recommend a ban on menthol cigarettes, even though the study group conceded that a ban would improve public health. The decision follows a 2009 federal ban on candy flavorings in cigarettes because of their potential allure for young smokers.

The panel's decision not to recommend a menthol ban is potentially a big victory for tobacco companies, in particular Lorillard Inc., makers of Newport, the country's top-selling menthol cigarette. Lorillard's stock price jumped more than 10 percent shortly after a draft of the panel's report was made public.

No one really knows how African Americans came to prefer menthol cigarettes in the first place. But relentlessly targeted marketing campaigns locked the preference in place.

The FDA isn't required to follow the advice of its advisory committees, but it usually does. The panel's pronouncement makes it more likely that menthol will continue its curious history as the world's most popular flavor additive in cigarettes. An Ohio man named Lloyd "Spud" Hughes is credited with introducing American smokers to the refreshing taste of menthol cigarettes in 1925. Hughes was working as a cashier in a restaurant when he came up with the idea of adding menthol flavoring to give the illusion of a "cooler" smoke. Thus was born Spud brand cigarettes, the first widely sold menthol smoke in America. By 1932, Spuds had become the fifth most popular cigarettes in the country.

The success of Spud caught the attention of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, which launched its own menthol brand, Kool, in 1932. Kool was initially targeted to upscale smokers; the brand's mascot was a cartoon penguin sporting a monocle and top hat. And menthol smokes really took off in 1956, when R.J. Reynolds introduced Salem, the first filter-tipped menthol cigarette.

Neither the filter nor the menthol protected smokers from the harmful effects of cigarettes, but tobacco companies shamelessly promoted menthol cigarettes as being somehow "fresher," and, by implication, healthier. In the early '70s, Salem print ads touted the brand's "natural" menthol. "That's what gives Salem a taste as soft and fresh as Springtime," the ads declared. Later, the makers of menthol Newport began a long-running campaign touting the brand as being "Alive with Pleasure."

Today, about 30 percent of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. are flavored with menthol. (Oddly, only two countries in the world have higher rates of menthol cigarette use¬—the Philippines and Cameroon.) And since the 1960s, menthol cigarette consumption in the U.S. has had a distinctly racial component. Currently, 80 percent of African American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and blacks are four times more likely than whites to choose menthols.

No one really knows how African Americans came to prefer menthol cigarettes in the first place. But relentlessly targeted marketing campaigns locked the preference in place, part of what Phillip Gardiner, a research scientist at the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program at the University of California calls the "African-Americanization of menthol cigarette use."

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Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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