WASHINGTON — Tobacco companies have manipulated menthol levels to attract young cigarette smokers and keep older ones, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reported Wednesday.
Their finding, with which industry spokesmen disagree, is based on a review of more than 500 internal tobacco-industry documents dated from 1985 through 2007.
The documents showed, according to the researchers, that tobacco companies studied how controlling levels of menthol could increase brand sales. They concluded that new and young smokers liked mild menthol that masked the harshness of tobacco smoke. Veteran smokers, the companies are said to have concluded, favored stronger doses of menthol for its cooling effects on their throats.
The findings come as Congress weighs whether to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products, including additives, at the national level. The bill would allow the FDA to ban all cigarette flavorings except menthol. If FDA tests of menthol showed that it added to the health risks of smoking, the agency could ban menthol, too.
No conclusive evidence shows menthol cigarettes to be more harmful than conventional ones, said Terry F. Pechacek, the associate director of the Office of Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pechacek said, however, that there was some evidence that menthol smokers had a harder time quitting.
Menthol has proven appeal to young people. According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 44 percent of smokers aged 12 to 17 reported that they smoked mentholated cigarettes. Among smokers older than 35, just 31 percent smoked them.
Menthol also is popular among African-American smokers, two-thirds or more of whom smoke mentholated brands, according to Gregory N. Connolly, a co-author of the report and the director of Harvard's Tobacco Control Research Program.
According to the program's lab tests of menthol concentrations in cigarettes since 2000, menthol went down in brands that the young preferred, such as Newport, Salem Black Label and Kool Milds. It went up in brands such as Marlboro Menthol, which were aimed at older smokers.
The report says that in 2000, Philip Morris launched Marlboro Milds with a lower concentration of menthol to attract young smokers. That same year, according to the report, Philip Morris increased the menthol in one of its sub-brands, Marlboro Menthol, to attract older smokers.
Behind the moves, the researchers assert, was an effort to woo new smokers. Their report cites, among others, a 1987 R.J. Reynolds document that suggests menthol can make it easier to get started. "First-time smoker reaction is generally negative," it says in part. "Initial negatives can be alleviated with a low level of menthol."
According to the Harvard researchers' report, the "rapid introduction" of new milder menthol brands in the past decade violates a provision in the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 between tobacco companies and state governments that prohibits them from directly or indirectly targeting youths.
"What we are seeing is pretty disturbing," Connolly said. "They are going after the most vulnerable population."
Michael Robinson, a spokesman for Lorillard Tobacco Co. in Greensboro, N.C., called the report's findings that menthol was manipulated to target young smokers "categorically false."
"Lorillard does not control levels of menthol to promote smoking among adolescents and young adults," he said in a statement. "Furthermore, Lorillard does not engineer any of its cigarettes to promote smoking initiation or nicotine addiction. Importantly, the target menthol specifications for Newport have not changed at all since 2000."
He dismissed Connolly's group's report as "a politically motivated lobbying tool."
David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris, noted that state attorneys general can act against tobacco companies that target underage smokers. None has brought any enforcement actions against Philip Morris, he said.
Sylvia also questioned the evidence that researchers used.
"I don't believe that the study hypothesis or conclusions are supported by the facts cited in their study," he said, "and we disagree with their conclusions that menthol levels in our products were manipulated to gain market share among adolescents. In fact, the study relies on information about young adults who are above the legal smoking age."
Certainly, the industry promoted menthol. From 1998 to 2005, according to the report, ads for menthol brands grew from 15 to 50 percent of total outlays for magazine ads. While overall advertising for conventional cigarettes was cut back sharply, ads for menthol brands increased slightly.
The bottom line: While overall U.S. cigarette sales declined 22 percent from 2000 through 2005, menthol sales remained stable.