Menthol Brand Switching Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the National Youth Smoking Cessation Survey

Young smokers often start with mentholated cigarettes and move to nonmentholated. Banning this “starter” tobacco product may keep some youth from starting to smoke or disrupt the progression of their habit according to a National Youth Smoking Cessation Survey (NYSCS) follow-up.

In 2009, candy, clove, and fruit flavorings were banned from cigarettes, leaving menthol the only “characterizing” flavor. Research shows that the youngest smokers (aged 12–17 years), including recent initiates, are most likely to smoke mentholated cigarettes than high school smokers and those who have been smoking longer than one year. No research has directly examined whether the same young smokers shift disproportionately from mentholated to nonmentholated over time. In this study, researchers compare data from the 2003 National Youth Smoking Cessation Survey (NYSCS) and a follow-up survey 24-months later of 1,045 original participants, ages 16-24.

Key Findings:

  • About 15 percent of menthol smokers from the original survey had shifted to nonmentholated cigarettes at follow-up. By comparison, 6.9 percent of nonmenthol smokers had shifted to mentholated.
  • This asymmetrical pattern is starkest among 19–20 year olds, non-Hispanic Whites, males, those whose parents had at least some college education, and those smoking more than 10 days per month. These findings suggest age, gender, race/ethnicity, parental education, and smoking frequency play a role.
  • Although not statistically significant, young smokers were progressively less likely to switch from menthol to nonmenthol cigarettes as they aged. While 23.6 percent of 16–18 year olds had switched by follow-up, just 10.1 percent of 21–24 year olds had switched.

Noting that tobacco industry documents reveal that the level of menthol flavoring is set to attract young smokers, the authors believe this study is evidence that banning mentholated cigarettes could prevent some kids from starting to smoke, and keep others from progressing from experimenter to regular smoker.