The US FDA has moved to ban menthol cigarettes. Australia should do that and more

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Menthol is the minty cigarette ingredient that conjures up images of beaches, snow-covered ski slopes and glamorous yacht parties, all crisp white and fresh green. Menthol as a deadly additive is under threat at last.

Several countries, including Canada, Ethiopia, Turkey, Chile, the European Union and the United Kingdom, have banned the use of menthol and other flavours in tobacco products.

Late to regulating menthol in tobacco products, the US Food and Drug Administration has also announced a ban.

In Australia, we have done little to change what’s inside cigarettes and other smoking products. So we lag even further behind the many other countries that have banned menthol.

For ‘timid’ ladies

The marketing of menthol by the tobacco industry in Australia has long been targeted at supposedly sophisticated smokers. In Melbourne in the 1990s, tobacco giant Philip Morris – in its personality analysis of smokers of its Alpine menthol brand – found the “Alpine Gal is a physically timid lady”, so the packaging had to be “gentle”, not “dare devil”.

More recently, the industry added menthol “crush balls” or capsules in filters in Australian cigarettes, so users get a burst of menthol by biting on the filter. Once again, women and children are the target market. A study from Wales showed the fact that:

[…] three in five 11–16 year-old smokers reported using menthol cigarettes in the past 30 days highlights how appealing these products are to young people, particularly capsule cigarettes, used by 70% of menthol smokers.

A search of millions of tobacco industry documents confirms menthol is designed to attract new young smokers, who incorrectly believe it makes cigarettes somehow less harmful.

In 2012, Australia’s then health minister and Attorney-General Nicola Roxon regulated the outside of cigarette packets, introducing plain packaging with graphic health warnings. Although significant, the packaging change did nothing to alter what was inside the product.

Nor have subsequent governments.

In other words, we have not yet regulated the most damaging aspects of cigarette design that increase and maintain addiction.

Read more: Next step for tobacco control? Make cigarettes less palatable

Not really ‘light’ - just dangerous

Menthol is associated with so-called “light” cigarettes, which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has found misleading and deceptive and banned the use of the term. The ACCC did not ban the content or engineering of cigarettes.

It is not just additives in cigarettes, and the smoke emissions, that are harmful. The “engineering hoax” of filters – which don’t make smoking any safer – is an even more dangerous fraud.

Read more: Filters: a cigarette engineering hoax that harms both smokers and the environment

A new era of additives

Australia’s new National Tobacco Strategy Consultation Draft says it will “explore” regulation of filters, additives – including menthol – and nicotine content, but offers little certainty.

In the UK, the ban on menthol cigarettes not only triggered a switch to menthol vapes, but also prompted the tobacco industry to invent new products to exploit loopholes in the law.

Late last year, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project – a network of investigative journalists – found:

A key goal of Big Tobacco was to get menthol defined as vaguely as possible.

So, any attempts at legislative control must be tightly worded. Big tobacco will drive its legal trucks through anything vague.

The effects of bans are mixed

Canadian research showed a fall in smoking rates followed their menthol ban.

Other research suggested targeting menthol in cigarettes might cause a switch to vaping, as in the UK. We know that vaping is a global public health problem and that flavourings drive uptake in adolescents. The FDA will not immediately ban menthol in e-cigarettes.

Vaping causes lung damage and exacerbates COVID symptoms.

E-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products should be regulated in exactly the same way as other tobacco products, and flavours should be regulated or eliminated.

New Zealand has moved to reduce nicotine content, the principal addictive drug in tobacco. But NZ has dropped the ball on e-cigarettes by separating its regulatory framework from other tobacco products. The country is experiencing high rates of teenage vaping uptake.

Read more: A damning review of e-cigarettes shows vaping leads to smoking, the opposite of what supporters claim

Smoking kills

There are three million smokers in Australia. Two-thirds will die from smoking-related diseases.

Most will have health problems, and our hospital emergency departments and wards deal with much higher rates of smokers being admitted than the general population.

The crushing burden on the health system and the associated economic cost could be effectively reduced with comprehensive regulatory measures on tobacco.

Endgame

The four endgame initiatives that will reduce smoking and vaping to a minimum in Australia are:

  1. a ban on sales of both combustible and vape tobacco products to anyone born after the year 2004

  2. regulation to eliminate flavours (including, but not limited to, menthol) in combustible, vape and emerging tobacco products

  3. staged reduction in nicotine content

  4. a ban on filter ventilation engineering in cigarettes.

Banning menthol as a standalone reform would make a modest contribution to reducing smoking and vaping rates in Australia.

However, substantive reduction in smoking rates will only occur with a comprehensive suite of measures, already strongly supported in the community. These include phasing out the sale of tobacco products completely.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Kathryn Barnsley, University of Tasmania.

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Kathryn Barnsley is co-convenor of SmokeFree Tasmania.

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