Roswell Park team uncovers “Trojan horse” products on the market after California ban
As bans on menthol tobacco spread across the country and a potential ban looms at the federal level, researchers at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and their colleagues at the University of Southern California (USC) are investigating the tobacco industry’s efforts to circumvent a menthol ban enacted in California in December 2022. Those efforts could signal how they will respond to a nationwide ban on menthol tobacco proposed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), expected this fall.
The ban addresses a critical public health problem, because adding menthol to tobacco reduces the harshness of the smoke, making it easier for teens and young adults to start smoking. And because menthol interacts with nicotine to intensify tobacco’s addictive properties, it becomes harder for menthol smokers to quit, raising their risk of tobacco-related diseases.
In the wake of California’s ban on the retail sale of menthol cigarettes, the Roswell Park and USC research teams set out to identify strategies used by the tobacco industry to protect sales to California smokers who smoked menthol products prior to the ban. Their work is highlighted in two studies published recently in the journal Tobacco Control.
Dr. Maciej Goniewicz
In the first, “Proliferation of ‘non-menthol’ cigarettes amid a state-wide flavour ban,” the researchers report that as menthol cigarettes disappeared from shelves in California after the ban, new products replaced them and were heavily marketed to appeal to former menthol smokers. Both Maciej Goniewicz, PhD, Professor of Oncology in Roswell Park’s Department of Health Behavior, and Michelle Page, Senior Research Specialist in the Department of Health Behavior, contributed to the study.
The research team visited 11 tobacco retailers in the Greater Los Angeles area, including seven large chain stores and four small, independently owned retailers. They found that packages of the new non-menthol cigarettes looked like those of the old menthol products but included “non-menthol” in the package description. All the large chain retailers offered discounts, coupons and other deals to promote the new non-menthol cigarettes, sometimes reducing the cost of a pack to as little as $1.
The second study, “Still ‘Cool’: tobacco industry responds to state-wide menthol ban with synthetic coolants” — led by Dr. Goniewicz, with Michelle Page as first author — revealed that several of the new non-menthol cigarette brands introduced in California were “Trojan horses,” complying with the statewide ban on menthol but replacing it with synthetic chemicals to mimic menthol’s cooling effects.
“Synthetic cooling chemicals that may cause sensations similar to menthol have been reported recently in various tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches,” says Dr. Goniewicz. “This is the first study to discover that synthetic cooling chemicals were added to conventional cigarettes marketed after the implementation of statewide menthol restrictions.
“Our findings raise concerns about potential industry strategies to respond to menthol restrictions by replacing it with synthetic analogs,” he adds, emphasizing the need for further investigation to better understand the impact of WS-3 and other synthetic coolants. “Future policies around any flavored tobacco products should consider the sensory effects and chemistry of synthetic additives added by the industry to modify tobacco products.”
The research team measured the content of menthol and 15 other cooling chemicals in the new non-menthol cigarettes sold in California and compared those concentrations to similar products with “menthol” labels available in New York State, where menthol cigarettes are not banned.
- Two non-menthol brands marketed to appeal to menthol smokers were available only in California, which suggests that these products are new to the market and marketed to fill the sales void created by the ban on menthol cigarettes.
- With the exception of one variety, menthol was not detected in any cigarettes sold in California. However, while WS-3, a synthetic cooling chemical, was not found in any cigarettes sold in New York, the agent was detected in four types of cigarettes in California that included package descriptions implying a cooling effect.
- Dihydroxyacetone, which offers both cooling and sweet sensations, was detected in the tobacco filler of all cigarettes sold in California and New York.
- Carvone, a mint flavoring, was found in one cigarette brand with capsules sold in California and New York. Gelatin capsules that contain flavoring are embedded in the cigarette filter, and pressing the filter to crush the capsule releases the flavor into the smoke. Capsules enable the tobacco industry to skirt menthol bans, because the tobacco itself is not flavored.
- Testing of cigarettes from both California and New York did not detect any of the 11 remaining cooling agents or other untargeted coolants.
For more than 50 years, the tobacco industry has actively targeted the Black community by placing ads for menthol cigarettes in Black-owned publications, offering free samples in Black neighborhoods, and sponsoring concerts and running retail promotions aimed at Black smokers. Today most Black smokers in the U.S. smoke menthol cigarettes and suffer disproportionately from related health effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although Black Americans make up only 12% of the U.S. population, they represented 40% of the deaths related to menthol cigarette smoking between 1980-2018.
The FDA’s proposed ban on menthol tobacco is intended to help reduce that serious health inequity. “It will affect a group of smokers who were not protected in the past,” says Dr. Goniewicz.
“But the wording the FDA uses in the regulation will be very important,” he cautions. “Otherwise, if the law says simply, ‘You cannot use menthol,’ the manufacturers may do exactly what we found in California — they will use menthol substitutes, and the product will remain on the market.”