Some “non-menthol” cigarettes that are being marketed as a “fresh” alternative in states where traditional menthol cigarettes are banned use synthetic chemicals to mimic menthol’s distinct cooling sensations, researchers at Yale and Duke University have found.
The synthetic additives could undermine existing policies and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban on menthol cigarettes expected later this year that is intended to discourage new smokers and address the harmful health effects of tobacco use.
Hundreds of municipalities across the United States and some states – Massachusetts and California – have already restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.
In a study published Oct. 9 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale, and Duke School of Medicine identified a synthetic flavoring agent known as WS-3 in the newly introduced “non-menthol” cigarettes that delivers similar, or stronger, cooling sensations as menthol but without the minty aroma or taste.
“The simple replacement of menthol with another cooling agent that lacks a ‘characterizing’ odor threatens to derail the existing local and proposed federal menthol bans,” said study coauthor Julie Zimmerman, professor of green engineering and of epidemiology (environmental health sciences) at the Yale School of Public Health, and vice provost for planetary solutions at Yale. “This is concerning as the goal of these bans is to attempt to curb smoking and reduce the number of new smokers.”
Flavored tobacco products such as menthol cigarettes tend to reduce tobacco’s harsh effects making them particularly popular among 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. Sustained tobacco use can cause nicotine addiction, severe respiratory problems, cancer, numerous other adverse health conditions, and death.
When California’s menthol ban was enacted in December 2022, the big tobacco companies – RJ Reynolds (makers of Newport menthol cigarettes) and ITG (makers of Kool menthol cigarettes) – introduced “non-menthol” cigarette brands as menthol substitutes, with very similar packaging and marketing strategies as their menthol counterparts.
In the present study, co-lead authors Hanno Erythropel, an associate research scientist at the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale, and Sairam Jabba, a senior research scientist at Duke University, combined a bioassay with chemical analysis to determine whether “non-menthol” cigarettes purchased in California and Massachusetts contain chemicals that activate the cold/menthol receptor similar to menthol.
Their analysis detected WS-3 in four of the nine currently marketed products. All four products were manufactured by RJ Reynolds. The analysis also detected vanilla and tropical flavor chemicals in flavor capsules in the filters of the “non-menthol” cigarettes.
“These results mean that these ‘non-menthol’ cigarettes produce effects similar to menthol when smoked, which in turn facilitates the inhalation of the other, more unpleasant components of tobacco smoke,” said Erythropel. “In addition, we were surprised to find ‘sweet’ flavor molecules, such as vanilla, in some cigarettes, which seems incompatible with federal legislation that forbids such flavors in cigarettes to reduce their attractiveness.
“These findings are concerning, and the U.S. FDA should develop strategies on how to address odorless cooling agents that could bypass tobacco product flavor regulations.”
Other countries have in fact begun to address this, said Erythropel. For example, Canada has detailed lists of specific ingredients that are allowed, and Belgium has restrictions on any ‘cooling’ activity in tobacco products.
“This study brings together many disciplines including toxicology, chemistry, psychiatry, and engineering and highlights the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations in producing relevant research,” said Paul Anastas, the Theresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at Yale School of the Environment and coauthor of the study.
The study received funding from the Yale Center for the Study of Tobacco Product Use and Addiction, supported by grant number U54DA036151 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the FDA Center for Tobacco Products. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sven-Eric Jordt, associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine, is the paper’s senior author.
Content from a Duke Health news article was included in this release.