Introduction In December 2022, California (CA) enforced a voter-approved regulation restricting the retail sale of flavoured tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. Shortly after, new products emerged on the market containing similar blue and green package colours yet with ‘non-menthol’ descriptors. Using chemical analyses, we measured the content of menthol and 15 other cooling chemicals in Californian cigarettes with ‘non-menthol’ descriptors and compared concentrations to similar ‘menthol’-labelled counterparts available in New York State (NY).
Methods A convenience sample of 10 brands and types of cigarettes in CA were purchased based on package colours suggesting a cooling effect and/or ‘non-menthol’ descriptors. The exact brand and type of cigarettes (with menthol descriptors) were purchased in NY. Cigarettes from CA were compared with equivalent cigarettes from NY on package design and colours, cigarette physical characteristics and the presence of cooling additives.
Results Menthol was not detected in any CA cigarette, except for Maverick-green box type, while its presence was confirmed in most NY counterpart products. A synthetic cooling chemical WS-3 was not detected in any NY cigarettes but was detected in four CA brands and types with implied cooling effect, ranging from 1.24±0.04 to 1.97±0.05 mg/cigarette.
Conclusion While manufacturers have removed menthol descriptors from CA packaging and the menthol ingredient from cigarettes, synthetic cooling chemicals detected in several CA brands suggest that cooling sensory effects may still be sustained. Policymakers must consider both the chemical ingredients themselves and sensory effects in future regulatory approaches.
- Tobacco industry
- Packaging and Labelling
- Public policy
This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.
Statistics from Altmetric.com
If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.
What is already known on this subject
Menthol is a critical additive tobacco manufacturers use to improve the smoking experience among tobacco users and attract new users.
The synthetic cooling chemicals that may cause sensory experiences similar to menthol have been recently reported in various tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches.
What important gaps in knowledge exist on this topic
Little is known about synthetic cooling chemicals in cigarettes marketed after menthol restrictions are implemented.
It is unknown whether manufacturers are compliant with new menthol restrictions by removing menthol from cigarettes, or by removing menthol descriptors from packaging while replacing menthol with other cooling flavouring chemicals.
What this study adds
‘Non-menthol’ cigarettes marketed in California with implied cooling effects did not contain menthol, yet some brands contained a synthetic cooling chemical WS-3.
Our findings raise concerns about potential industry strategies to respond to menthol restrictions by replacing this common additive with synthetic analogues.
Flavourings in tobacco products improve sensory experiences by masking the harshness of inhaled smoke and also increase the product’s appeal to potential users.1 2 Menthol is among the most commonly used flavourings in various tobacco products.3 As part of strategies to reduce tobacco use, several countries, starting with Canada in 20154 and more recently in the European Union in 2020,5 6 have imposed bans on characterising flavours, including menthol, in some or all tobacco products.7 Canada and Germany have also banned the use of substitute synthetic cooling flavouring chemicals that mimic the sensory effects of menthol.8 The USA currently prohibits the sale of flavoured combustible cigarettes (other than menthol), though flavours are permitted in cigars, smokeless tobacco, roll-your-own/loose tobacco, shisha and e-cigarettes. While a federal flavour ban on menthol cigarettes and cigars may be forthcoming,9 the state of California (CA) prohibited in December 2022 the retail sale of most flavoured tobacco products, including those with characterising menthol flavours, defined as ‘a distinguishable taste or aroma, or both, other than the taste or aroma of tobacco’.10
We have recently reported new marketing campaigns in CA of rebranded cigarettes with ‘fresh’ and ‘crisp’ alongside ‘non-menthol’ descriptors.11 RJ Reynolds, one of the biggest US manufacturers of menthol cigarettes, has launched a ‘California, We’ve Got You Covered’ campaign12 to suggest sustained cooling sensory experience from rebranded products. It is unclear whether the industry has updated descriptors on cigarette packages or modified their product formulations by removing or replacing menthol with alternative cooling flavourings. Indeed, speculation of industry response has included using alternative cooling agents, such as WS-3 and WS-23,13–15 which have similar cooling effects but without delivering a characterising menthol flavour.16
This study aimed to assess the content of menthol and 15 cooling agents in ‘non-menthol’ marketed cigarettes purchased in CA and compare these cooling agents to their ‘menthol’-labelled counterparts purchased in New York State (NY).
Materials and methods
Cigarettes with ‘non-menthol’ package descriptors from 10 brands and types were purchased from large-chain stores and independently owned retailers located in the Greater Los Angeles area, as previously described,11 and San Francisco, CA (figure 1). Comparator products with similar package colours yet containing ‘menthol’ labelling from the same brands and types were purchased from gas stations around Buffalo, NY. Newport-red box ‘non-menthol’ cigarettes were available in both CA and NY. Products were obtained between January and March 2023 and stored at −20±4°C until analysis. Physical and chemical tests described below were conducted after cigarettes were conditioned for 48 hours at 22±4°C with 60% relative humidity.17
Labelling differences were compared by evaluating pack and logo primary colours as well as text or descriptive language of expressed (eg, ‘menthol’) and implied (eg, ‘fresh’) flavour descriptors, following similar methodology as previously reported.18 To understand whether manufacturers modified the physical characteristics of cigarettes, we measured tobacco rod and filter length, diameter and weight using callipers and an analytical balance.19 Ventilation and proximity to the mouth end were determined by examining filter paper vent holes using a lightbox. Rod and filter density were calculated as previously reported.19 All measurements were performed in triplicate. Moisture content was assessed once from the tobacco filler of five cigarettes using a moisture analyser (HB43-S, Mettler Toledo). We used Mann-Whitney non-parametric t-tests to compare differences between CA and NY cigarettes.
The tobacco filler was separated from the non-tobacco material (NTM; filter and remaining paper rod) and placed in preweighed Erlenmeyer flasks. If flavour capsules were found in a product, they were removed and manually crushed in a separate preweighed flask. Forty millilitres of methanol extraction solution containing 0.025 mg/mL internal standards (online supplemental table 1) was added, and each flask was mixed for 2 hours. All cigarettes were analysed in triplicate. Weight differences of tobacco filler, NTM and capsules between replicates did not exceed 20%.
Cooling flavouring chemical analysis
Neat standards of the 16 cooling flavouring chemicals, including l-menthol and synthetic coolants WS-3 and WS-23, and internal standards assessed in the study were purchased from multiple vendors (online supplemental table 1). Calibration standards and quality controls ranging from 0.00025 to 0.5 mg/mL (equivalent to cigarette content from 0.01 to 20.0 mg/cigarette) were prepared to calibrate and validate the analytical method. Quantitative analysis was performed using a 7890B/5977A gas chromatography/mass spectrometry system (Agilent Technologies; California) following parameters listed in online supplemental table 2. Separation was achieved, where ion spectra and retention times were matched to calibration standards acquired in each batch (online supplemental figure 1). Three highly abundant ions for each analyte were selected as additional identifiers (online supplemental table 2). Quantitation was performed using peak area and internal standard response from calibrations exceeding correlation values (r2) of 0.985. Parametric t-tests were used to compare chemical differences between CA and NY cigarettes. Chromatograms were visually inspected for additional non-targeted peaks.
Package design, flavour descriptors and physical characteristics
Differential packaging was observed only with the use of ‘non-menthol’ flavour descriptors among CA brands, rather than ‘menthol’ among NY brands (figure 1). Newport EXP (Max and Mix, figure 1H) and Camel Crisp (not shown) were only available in CA, suggesting these were newly marketed. CA Camel Crush-silver and blue logo types have replaced expressed ‘menthol’ with implied ‘oasis’ descriptors (figure 1E,F). The use of ‘non-menthol’ descriptors was also used to imply the absence of menthol flavour among CA and NY Newport-red box (figure 1D), which were available prior to the ban, and NY Camel Crush-blue logo (figure 1F).
Notably, CA Newport-green box cigarettes weighed significantly less than the NY counterparts. Also, CA Maverick-green box contained two rows of ventilation holes, whereas the NY equivalent was not visibly ventilated (online supplemental table 3 and online supplemental figure 2).
Content of menthol and alternative cooling agents
Menthol was not detected in any CA cigarette’s NTM (filters). In the Maverick brand, menthol was present in the tobacco filler at a substantially lower concentration compared with the NY equivalent (0.02±0.00 mg/cigarette vs 2.74±0.06 mg/cigarette, p<0.05) (table 1). In contrast, menthol was detected in the tobacco filler and NTM from most NY cigarettes, ranging in total content from 2.13 to 3.59 mg/cigarette. NY Camel Crush-blue logo and Newport-red box did not contain menthol in the filler or NTM. Among NY Camel Crush capsules, menthol content averaged 4.44±0.20 mg/capsule.
The synthetic cooling chemical WS-3 was identified in two brands of CA cigarettes: Newport and Camel, ranging from 1.24±0.04 to 1.97±0.05 mg/cigarette, where over 90% of the content was found in the tobacco filler. Dihydroxyacetone, which provides both cooling and sweet sensations, was found in the tobacco filler of all CA and NY cigarettes. Dihydroxyacetone failed to meet acceptable calibration criteria; therefore, content was not reported. Menthyl acetate was measured in NY cigarettes only (Kool-blue box and Camel Crush-silver and blue logo). Carvone, a minty flavouring used in commercial wintergreen-flavoured products, was detected in CA and NY Camel Crush cigarette capsules. We did not find the remaining 11 cooling agents, or other untargeted coolants in any tested cigarette from CA or NY (online supplemental table 1 and online supplemental figure 3).
Our results indicate that the menthol descriptor was removed from package labelling, and that the menthol ingredient was removed from tobacco filler, and NTM in most cigarettes sold in CA after restrictions on flavoured tobacco products was introduced. One brand, Maverick-green box, contained menthol at a level similar to previously reported content identified in traditional non-mentholated cigarettes.20 Manufacturers have historically added low amounts of menthol below detectable characterising thresholds, yet still sufficient to activate cellular signalling, providing cooling effects in the upper respiratory tract.21 Several Newport and Camel brands appear to have replaced menthol with WS-3. For example, Newport-green box contained 2.43 mg menthol among NY cigarettes, while CA equivalents contained 1.34 mg WS-3 per cigarette. Selected brands also introduced filter ventilation and reduced weight, which act to reduce harshness and increase perceived smoothness.22 23
Synthetic coolants, such as WS-3, can exert similar cooling effects as menthol by binding to the same cellular receptors (TRPM8 and TRPA1).24 For some coolants, including WS-3, the relative agonistic potency is greater, producing more intense lingering cooling effects.25 Notably, an estimated 1200 synthetic coolants have been developed to mimic, intensify or prolong cooling effects compared with menthol.25 26 While our results did not identify additional synthetic coolants, manufacturers may continue modifying ingredient lists in place of menthol bans. If there is demand for synthetic cooling agents by the tobacco industry in response to menthol bans, we may observe the increased presence of new cooling agents in various tobacco products. Industry methods measuring synthetic coolants Evercool 180 and 190 were recently published, although cigarette content was not reported.27 Analogously, increased availability and use of previously costly synthetic nicotine observed in US e-cigarettes after national flavour bans,28 in an attempt to remain unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, has illustrated the industry’s attention to synthetic alternatives as a means of evading regulation.
A significant limitation of our study is that we purposely selected a small convenience sample of products from CA which included ‘non-menthol’ wording on the packaging. As such, this study’s results may not represent all brands and industry strategies. For example, prior industry testing with WS-14 has been reported.29 Further, it is unknown whether these products are available in other regions in the USA with menthol cigarette bans. Additional surveillance is needed to understand whether ‘non-menthol’ cigarettes will become more widely marketed with forthcoming menthol bans, or whether CA is simply a test market for these products.
Our results suggest that CA’s menthol ban resulted in new cigarette formulations, which included WS-3, likely to sustain cooling sensations after removing menthol. Further investigation is needed to understand whether WS-3 and other synthetic coolants provide characteristic tastes or aromas besides tobacco in these products. Future policies around flavoured tobacco products should comprehensively consider the sensory effects and the chemistry of tobacco products.
Patient consent for publication
The authors thank Lisa Lawrence and Neal Benowitz from UCSF for providing additional CA ‘non-menthol’ products, and Anthony Brown from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center for providing comparative images of products used in the manuscript.
Contributors AL, RJO'C and MLG contributed to the conception of the work. LRM and AG acquired the California products. MKP, EEP and NJL acquired the New York products. MKP contributed to assay development, preparation and chemical experiments of the products. EEP completed the physical measurements of the products. MKP and NJL contributed to data analysis. MKP drafted the manuscript, and all authors approved the final version of the manuscript. MLG has full access to all study data and takes responsibility for the data integrity and the data analysis accuracy.
Funding Research reported here was supported by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products under award numbers U54CA228110 and U54CA180905, NIH grant K24-DA048160 and NCI grant P30CA016056 involving the use of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Nicotine and Tobacco Product Shared Resource.
Disclaimer The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or the FDA.
Competing interests MLG received a research grant from and served as an advisory board member to pharmaceutical companies that manufacture smoking cessation drugs.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.