Menthol Toolkit


Menthol is a chemical compound that can be extracted from mint plants or produced synthetically. Its minty, cooling effect helps mask the harshness of cigarette smoke, allowing smokers to inhale more deeply and making menthol cigarettes more appealing.


History and Trends

Menthol was first used as a cigarette additive in the 1920s. Although menthol cigarettes started out as a specialty item, targeted marketing strategies helped them grow in popularity. Promotion began with female smokers in the 1930s, and shifted to African American smokers in the 1960s and younger and first-time smokers in the 1970s.2 Today, menthol cigarettes represent approximately one-fourth of all cigarette sales in the United States.3

Menthol's cooling effect on the mouth and throat makes it easier for new smokers to start smoking, and also makes smoking more difficult to quit. Even though menthol smokers have a higher rate of quit attempts than non-menthol smokers, they are less likely to successfully quit smoking.4

Health and Safety

Because menthol helps to mask airway pain and irritation associated with smoking regular cigarettes, people perceive menthol cigarettes to be less harmful. The truth is that menthol cigarettes offer no health benefits compared to non-menthol cigarettes, and their soothing effect may in fact delay detection of early warning symptoms of smoking-induced respiratory problems. Studies show that menthol cigarettes are actually more likely to increase youth initiation, hinder cessation, and promote relapse.3

Menthol cigarettes are not regulated. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed by Congress, banning artificial or natural flavorings in cigarettes. The legislation included flavors such as strawberry, clove, grape, and cherry, but menthol was excluded. Although the Food and Drug Administration has regulatory authority on tobacco products, it has not yet taken action on menthol. 3

Who Smokes Menthol Cigarettes?

Patterns of Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, menthol cigarettes are overwhelmingly the most used tobacco product among African Americans.3

Before the 1960s, African Americans smoked menthol and non-menthol cigarettes at rates comparable to the general population. Use of menthol cigarettes by African Americans began to outpace use of menthol cigarettes by other groups beginning in the 1960s, when the African American community became a prime target for the tobacco industry’s menthol marketing strategies.5



The African American community sees disproportionately more menthol cigarette marketing than other communities. Research has found that not only are there significantly more menthol advertisements at stores in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of African American residents, but menthol cigarettes are also significantly less expensive at stores in these neighborhoods.6

Menthol advertisements are also more prevalent in African American publications such as Ebony, Jet, and Essence. These advertisements incorporate elements of African American culture, music, and messages related to racial identity.3,6 These targeted advertisements portray images of successful, happy, confident, and attractive African Americans. They also feature models with more pronounced African American features, such as darker complexions and afro hairstyles.6,7



The tobacco industry has further tried to appeal to the African American community by building a positive brand identity through philanthropy. Recipients of tobacco industry funds include:

  • National Urban League
  • United Negro College Fund
  • Congressional Black Caucus Foundation
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People3

The tobacco industry has also supported African American colleges and universities, and promotes products at dance clubs and hip hop venues.6

Patterns of Use

The National Adult Tobacco Survey reports that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) adult smokers (36.3%) use menthol cigarettes at a higher rate than heterosexual adult smokers (29.3%).11


Tobacco companies identified the LGBT community as a target population in the 1990s, and began publishing advertisements in LGBT publications such as Genre, The Advocate, and Girlfriends.  Some ads were sexually ambiguous, featuring two women and a man, or two men and a woman. These visuals resonated with the LGBT audience, but were also able to avoid scrutiny or criticism for pandering because they were not necessarily featuring same sex couples. Other ads publicized tobacco companies’ support for the LGBT community, making note of their commitment to diversity in hiring or their corporate contributions to HIV/AIDS research and outreach groups. More recently, tobacco companies have sponsored LGBT-frequented or LGBT-related events and venues, including bars and Pride festivals. Companies have advertised at these events and venues with free giveaways or coupons for cigarettes and merchandise.12


Patterns of Use

A 2013 national survey found that menthol cigarette use was highest among youth aged 12-17 years old and young adults aged 18-25 years old, compared to adults aged 26 and older.8


Even as cigarette use by young adult smokers in the United States has steadily declined in recent years, use of menthol cigarettes by young adults has increased.1 Further, youth who start smoking with menthol cigarettes are more likely to become regular non-menthol cigarette smokers and are at higher risk for nicotine dependence.9


In 1972, Newport became the first menthol brand to target young people. Its messaging emphasized youthful imagery, fun, pleasure, and “coolness”. Its visuals did not show people smoking, but depicted groups of young people having fun, engaging in silly activities, and taking pleasure in life. This branding communicated that smoking Newports were a part of being accepted, young, and having a good time.10,3


Newport has also been known to distribute menthol cigarettes for $1 per pack at concerts and festivals popular with youth.1

Targeted youth marketing became increasingly important as the tobacco industry recognized that brand preferences are developed early in life, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood. By focusing on younger smokers, menthol brands broadened their customer base and decreased risk of its customers “aging out”.10  


  • Communities of color use menthol cigarettes disproportionately. Findings from a 2004-2008 national study showed that among current smokers aged 12 years or older, 82.6% of African American, 53.2% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 32.3% of Hispanic/Latino, 31.2% of Asian, 24.8% of American Indian/Alaska Native, and 23.8% of white smokers used menthol cigarettes.3

Individuals with Mental Illness

  • The 2008 and 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that individuals with severe psychological distress were significantly more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes compared to smokers with no or mild distress.13 

Low Socioeconomic Status (Low SES) Individuals

  • Individuals with a high school diploma, graduate equivalency degree, or less than a high school education are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes than those with a college degree.13

    Tobacco retailers located in low income, urban communities that report high menthol sales are more likely to display menthol advertisements on their storefronts. These retailers also offer higher discount rates on menthol cigarette brands compared to those in more affluent white neighborhoods.3 



  1. "The Truth About Menthol" Truth Initiative (2017)
  2. "The Marketing of Menthol Cigarettes in the United States: Population, Messages, and Channels" (2004)
  3. "Menthol and Cigarettes" California Department of Public Health (2017)
  4. "Quit Attempts and Quit Rates Among Menthol and Nonmenthol Smokers in the United States" (2011)
  5. "Menthol: Putting the Pieces Together" (2011)
  6. "Tobacco Company Marketing to African Americans" Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (2017)
  7. "The African Americanization of Menthol Cigarette Use in the United States" (2004)
  8. "Differential Trends in Cigarette Smoking in the USA: Is Menthol Slowing Progress?" (2015)
  9. "Initiation with Menthol Cigarettes and Youth Smoking Update" (2013)
  10. "The Marketing of Menthol Cigarettes in the United States: Populations, Messages, and Channels" (2004)
  11. "Menthol Cigarette Smoking Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults" (2015)
  12. "An Analysis of Tobacco Industry Marketing to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Populations: Strategies for Mainstream Tobacco Control and Prevention" (2004)
  13. "Menthol Use Among Smokers with Psychological Distress: Findings From the 2008 and 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health" (2014)