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 yesterday.
Their finding, with which industry spokesmen disagree, is based on a review of more than 500 internal tobacco industry documents dated from 1985 through last year.
Researchers say the documents showed 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 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.
There is no conclusive evidence that menthol cigarettes are more harmful than conventional ones, said Terry F. Pechacek, associate director of the Office of Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pechacek said there was some evidence that menthol smokers have 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 ages 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, said Gregory N. Connolly, a co-author of the report and director of Harvard's Tobacco Control Research Program.
Program lab tests of menthol in cigarettes since 2000 show menthol went down in brands the young preferred, such as Newport, Salem Black Label and Kool Milds. It went up in brands, such as Marlboro Menthol, 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 year, the report says, Philip Morris increased the menthol in one of its subbrands, Marlboro Menthol, to attract older smokers.
Behind the moves, the researchers assert, was an effort to woo new smokers. Their report notes, among others, a 1987 R.J. Reynolds document that suggests that 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."
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, says the Harvard researchers' report.
"What we are seeing is pretty disturbing," Connolly said. "They are going after the most vulnerable."
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 said the report was "a politically motivated lobbying tool."