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


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.

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."

"Menthol cigarettes have been marketed to some of the most vulnerable segments of the population," Gardiner says. "For half a century, people with the least resources and the most to lose have been the target of this product."

Internal tobacco company research in the early 1950s showed a slight preference for menthol Kools among African American smokers, and firms quickly capitalized by marketing menthol smokes directly to blacks. African American baseball player Elston Howard was an early spokesman for menthol Kools in the late 1950s. "You feel a new smoothness deep in your throat," proclaimed ads featuring Howard, a star catcher for the New York Yankees.

In the late 1970s, the makers of Newport used the James Brown hit "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to trumpet the message "Newport is a whole new bag of menthol smoking." Later, the Kool Jazz Festival and hip-hop concerts were used to promote menthols among African Americans. Menthol smokes soon acquired an edgy urban quality—a dangerous smoke. "Smokin' mad Newports/'cause I'm due in court," the Notorious B.I.G. rapped on his 1994 hit "Everyday Struggle." The FDA advisory committee report notes the longstanding popularity of menthol among African Americans, but skirts the issue of how that preference came to be.

mentholcigsedit.jpg In the face of a proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, Lorillard, makers of industry-leading Newport, has framed the debate as nothing less than a civil rights issue. One Lorillard promotional ad depicts an African American woman accompanied by the headline "Freedom of Choice for Grown Folks." The ad notes that "the history of African Americans in this country has been one of fighting against paternalistic limitations and for freedoms" and that adults should have the freedom to choose to smoke menthol cigarettes.

Some black leaders have taken up the mentholated banner. Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, publicly opposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, arguing that it unfairly targeted African Americans. Leaders of two African American police organizations published op-ed pieces contending that a menthol ban would only lead to an illegal market—in effect arguing that eliminating one black market would create another.

In the end, the FDA panel decided not to recommend an outright ban on menthol, even though the panel admitted that it's "biologically plausible" that adding menthol to cigarettes makes them more addictive. In fact, a 2010 meta-study by two researchers from Ohio State University concluded that while menthol cigarettes aren't more harmful than regular smokes, the menthol flavoring often makes it harder for smokers to quit. The researchers found lower quit rates and higher relapse rates among menthol cigarette smokers compared to smokers of non-flavored cigarettes.

But for now, lovers of menthol cigarettes can breathe easier—assuming their lungs still function. Menthol cigarettes are likely to be around for the foreseeable future, easily outliving the folks who enjoy them.

Images (from top to bottom): juxtapozer/flickr, Fugue/flickr