Menthol Ban Looming, Cigarette Makers Turn to Synthetic Substitutes
DURHAM, N.C. – Synthetic chemicals that mimic menthol’s cooling sensations are being added to newly introduced “non-menthol” cigarettes in states that have banned the additive, according to a new study from Duke Health.
The additives appear to be an effort to circumvent an expected federal ban of menthol cigarettes by the FDA later this year. Already, California and Massachusetts have enacted laws banning sales of menthol cigarettes.
In a study appearing online Oct. 9 in JAMA, researchers from Duke Health and Yale University identified new compounds that achieve similar cooling sensations to menthol, which has long been added to tobacco to reduce harshness. Menthol cigarettes are often favored by young people and those just starting to smoke. Historically menthol cigarettes have also been aggressively marketed towards African Americans, with up to 90% of African Americans who smoke using menthol cigarettes.
“We found that tobacco companies are adding a synthetic cooling agent called WS-3 to these new “non-menthol” cigarettes,” said Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine and senior author of the study. “The added amounts are sufficient to produce robust cooling sensations, with some brands having more cooling activity than their menthol equivalent cigarettes.”
When California’s menthol ban was enacted in December 2022, the big tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and ITG, introduced “non-menthol” cigarette brands as menthol substitutes, with very similar packaging and marketing strategies as their menthol cigarette brands.
Sairam V. Jabba, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Duke and lead author of the study, measured whether cigarettes purchased in the two states with bans contain chemicals that activate the cold/menthol receptor, which senses environmental cold temperature and is activated by menthol.
“We found that four of the non-menthol cigarette products, all manufactured by RJ Reynolds, robustly activated the cold/menthol receptor, and this cooling activity was stronger than of their menthol counterparts,” Jabba said.
“These results signify that these new “non-menthol” cigarettes can produce the same cooling sensations as menthol cigarettes and thereby facilitate smoking initiation,” he said. “Allowing these cigarettes to be marketed would nullify several of the expected public health benefits from state and federal bans of menthol cigarettes.”
A chemical analysis of the “non-menthol” cigarettes detected a synthetic cooling agent, named WS-3, in four of the nine currently marketed products. WS-3 produces a cooling effect, but lacks the minty smell of menthol, allowing these products to bypass regulations. The researchers also detected vanilla and tropical flavor chemicals in “non-menthol” cigarettes, contained in flavor capsules in the filters.
“Our discovery of restricted flavors such as vanilla, which have characteristic odor and taste, demonstrates that big tobacco is ignoring current federal regulations banning the addition of characteristic flavors to cigarettes. More importantly, vanilla flavor is a very popular among children and youth, making it easy for them to initiate on these cigarettes,” Jordt said.
“FDA regulators need to develop effective strategies for the control of odorless cooling agents and flavors that threaten to bypass tobacco flavor bans,” he said.
In addition to Jordt and Jabba, study authors include Hanno C. Erythropel, Paul T. Anastas, and Julie B. Zimmerman of Yale University.
Research reported in this publication was supported by grant number U54DA036151 (Yale Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science) from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Center for Tobacco Products of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or the Food and Drug Administration.