Chemicals in ‘non-menthol’ cigarettes mimic the real thing

"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," says Julie Zimmerman. (Credit: Getty Images)

Some “non-menthol” cigarettes use synthetic chemicals to mimic menthol’s distinct cooling sensations, a new study shows.

The “non-menthol” cigarettes are marketed as a “fresh” alternative in states where traditional menthol cigarettes are banned.

The synthetic additives could undermine existing policies and a US 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, researchers say.

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.

For the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers 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,” says 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 enacted its menthol ban 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. RJ Reynolds manufactured all four products. 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,” says 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 US 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, says Erythropel. For example, Canada has detailed lists of specific ingredients that are allowed, and Belgium has restrictions on any “cooling” activity in tobacco products.

Sven-Eric Jordt, associate professor in the anesthesiology department at Duke University School of Medicine, is the paper’s senior author.

The study received funding support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institutes of Health, and the Center for Tobacco Products of the US Food and Drug Administration.

Source: Colin Poitras for Yale University