Tobacco companies have long tried to attract young people to use their products, and adding flavors is a favored tactic. Including flavors (like menthol or clove) in cigarettes masks the harshness of combusted tobacco smoke, making smoking more palatable to novice smokers.
The strategy has been successful in many places. In the early 2000s, the use of flavored cigarettes was nearly three times higher in 17-year-old smokers in the U.S. compared with smokers over 25, and research shows young people in other parts of the world have a similar preference for flavored cigarettes (see, for example, evidence from Mexico, Chile and the UK .
In an effort to curb youth smoking, at least 11 countries and the European Union have banned the sale of some or all flavored cigarettes. For example, in 2009 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which effectively banned added flavors, herbs, and spices (such as clove) in cigarettes sold in the U.S. According to one analysis, the ban resulted in a 17% drop in the likelihood that an adolescent would become a cigarette smoker.
The caveat with the US policy? The ban didn’t include menthol, which dampened the effectiveness of the policy because menthol was by far the most common flavored cigarette sold in the US. While smoking went down overall, that same analysis found use of menthol cigarettes crept up, as smokers preferring flavored cigarettes switched to the last remaining flavor available. The policy also exempted cigars, and flavored little cigars popped up overnight sold by the same companies who previously sold flavored cigarettes, targeting youth and others who would have purchased flavored cigarettes.
Menthol cigarettes are particularly popular in the U.S., more so than in other countries, accounting for roughly a third of cigarettes sold. Euromonitor International finds that only Singapore, Dominican Republic, Cameroon, and Thailand have markets with larger menthol shares. The map below shows the share of sales in 78 countries, of which only 7 have higher flavored cigarette sales shares than the US. The exclusion of menthol from the flavored cigarette ban likely yielded higher rates of youth smoking and exacerbated tobacco-related health disparities in groups who are more likely to prefer menthol cigarettes such as (in the U.S.) African-Americans.