Hidden Threat in “Non-Menthol” Cigarettes: Yale Scientists Uncover Alarming Use of Synthetic Chemicals

Cigarette Smoke

Researchers found that certain “non-menthol” cigarettes, marketed as alternatives in places where menthol cigarettes are banned, contain synthetic chemicals that mimic menthol’s cooling sensations. These chemicals, particularly a synthetic flavoring agent called WS-3, provide similar or stronger effects than menthol without the minty taste. This discovery raises concerns as it might undermine the efforts of policies and the anticipated FDA ban on menthol cigarettes. While these cigarettes mask the harsh effects of tobacco, making them attractive to young and novice smokers, some countries have already initiated actions against such products.

Researchers from Yale and Duke University discovered that certain “non-menthol” cigarettes, marketed as a “fresh” option in regions where traditional menthol cigarettes are prohibited, contain synthetic chemicals that replicate the unique cooling effect of menthol.

These synthetic additives might weaken the impact of upcoming policies, including a projected U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban on menthol cigarettes. This ban aims to deter potential smokers and mitigate the detrimental health consequences of tobacco consumption.

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.

In a study published Oct. 9 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale, and Duke School of Medicine 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,” said study 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’s menthol ban was enacted 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. All four products were manufactured by RJ Reynolds. 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,” said 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 U.S. 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, said Erythropel. For example, Canada has detailed lists of specific ingredients that are allowed, and Belgium has restrictions on any ‘cooling’ activity in tobacco products.

“This study brings together many disciplines including toxicology, chemistry, psychiatry, and engineering, and highlights the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations in producing relevant research,” said Paul Anastas, the Theresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at Yale School of the Environment and coauthor of the study.

Reference: “Synthetic Cooling Agent and Other Flavor Additives in “Non-Menthol” Cigarettes Marketed in California and Massachusetts After Menthol Cigarette Bans” by Sairam V. Jabba, Hanno C. Erythropel, Paul T. Anastas, Julie B. Zimmerman and Sven E. Jordt, 9 October 2023, JAMA.
DOI: 10.1001/jama.2023.17134

The study received funding support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (U54DA036151), the National Institutes of Health, and the Center for Tobacco Products of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sven-Eric Jordt, associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine, is the paper’s senior author.

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