Tobacco Companies Have Been Developing Products That 'Circumvent' This Week's Menthol Ban
The mint flavoured cigarettes will be officially banned from shelves as of this Wednesday, after an initial four year phasing out period.
But new research has uncovered that tobacco companies have not used the time to prepare for an all out ban, and have instead been spending the time developing new products, as well as keeping menthol cigarettes on the shelf for as long as possible.
The study analysed industry data to track menthol market cigarette share from legislation agreement through to 2018.
Researchers at the Tobacco Control Research Group also looked at documentary evidence - industry documents, websites and retail publications - to understand tobacco industry activities.
And contrary to phasing out their products, the findings show that during the grace period the tobacco industry was given to prepare, the UK market share of menthol cigarettes grew from 14 per cent of cigarette sales in 2014 to over a fifth - 21 per cent - in 2018.
With one-in-six menthol smokers stating they would quit after the menthol ban, an impact which potentially could reduce UK cigarette sales overall by three per cent, the researchers say the menthol ban will be an important driver in the fight against deaths and illness from cigarette smoking.
Dr Rosemary Hiscock, lead author of University of Bath study, said: "Our findings suggest the tobacco industry was driving sales of menthol cigarettes right up to the ban - a product whose serious health implications had led to the ban in the first place."
The paper also suggests that the tobacco industry used the delay to develop and introduce new menthol products that will circumvent the ban once it is implemented.
This includes menthol filters and flavour cards which smokers can add to cigarette packs or roll-your-own tobacco pouches to make them minty.
Due to a loophole in the tobacco display ban legislation, these accessories, unlike cigarettes, can be promoted to customers near the cash till in England and Wales - but not Scotland.
Other products developed include cigarette-like 'cigarillos,' or small cigars that come with the option of adding flavour.
Dr Hiscock added: "We recommend loopholes in legislation be closed as soon as possible to prevent tobacco companies undermining the intended public health impacts of the legislation.
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"This includes preventing the display of tobacco accessories and extending the menthol ban to all tobacco products, including cigarillos and heated tobacco products.
"In Canada, the menthol ban stops menthol being used at all, whereas UK legislation only stops menthol's use as a characterising flavour.
"Banning menthol's use would stop menthol masking the harsh effects of smoking when it is present at undetectable levels."
The menthol ban was first agreed in 2014 and originally due to be implemented in 2016, alongside measures such as standardised packaging.
But the four year phase out was put in place after intense lobbying.
In that time, the researchers highlighted how big tobacco companies created new websites and sponsored retail industry pieces which effectively undermine the intended public health benefit of the ban.
These websites push consumers to consider the newly developed products, rather than quit.
Professor Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group, said: "The way tobacco companies are using the ban on menthol cigarettes to promote new menthol tobacco products which are heated rather than burned undermines the very purpose of this ban.
"It also flies in the face of tobacco company claims that they wish to reduce the harm from smoking. They realise the menthol ban will trigger smokers to quit.
"Instead they seek to move the smokers onto new tobacco products which independent evidence indicates are as dangerous as smoking and from which they make even more profit."
Primary concerns about menthol cigarettes include the fact it masks the harsh sensations of smoking.
Experts worried the flavour may make them more appealing to young people, and could encourage a nicotine addiction more quickly than other products.
Significantly however, menthol can mask early respiratory disease symptoms, so menthol smokers may carry on smoking after they start to become ill, at a time when smokers of other products might be prompted to quit.
The findings were published in the BMJ's Tobacco Control.
Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons