Even when menthol cannot be tasted, the substance makes it easier to inhale tobacco smoke. This way, menthol makes smoking more attractive for young and novice smokers who are not yet used to inhaling sharp, pungent tobacco smoke. There is strong evidence for this effect in independent literature, but not in the reports submitted by tobacco manufacturers. This is one of the key outcomes of a study led by RIVM, which was part of the European collaborative project 'Joint Action on Tobacco Control'.
Since May 2020, tobacco products containing a characterising menthol flavour are prohibited in the EU. However, menthol may still be added in low amounts, which do not lead to a characteristic flavour. According to the European Tobacco Products Directive, manufacturers of tobacco products are required to disclose to the Member States which additives they use in tobacco products. The manufacturers also had to provide additional information about, among other things, the harmful and addictive effects of 15 priority additives, including menthol. Commissioned by the European Commission, an independent group of experts led by RIVM assessed the research reports of the manufacturers about the priority additives.
Concern about menthol
The tobacco companies conclude in their report that low amounts of menthol do not facilitate inhalation of tobacco smoke. However, the WP 9 experts found strong evidence for such an effect in independent literature. Their advice is therefore to ban the addition of menthol in tobacco products in any amount. Some countries such as Germany and Finland have already banned menthol and similar substances due to the fact that they facilitate smoke inhalation.
Tobacco industry reports unreliable
The main conclusion of the WP 9 experts is that the reports that were submitted by tobacco manufacturers are of insufficient quality. For example, various relevant independent studies have not been included in the reports, as was the case for menthol. In addition, the WP 9 experts found limitations in the research methods and statistical analyzes used by the tobacco manufacturers. The Wp 9 experts therefore question the scientific validity of the industry reports. They recommend that the outcomes and conclusions of the industry report should therefore not be used by Member States to guide policy.
The Joint Action on Tobacco Control (JATC) is a collaboration between the European Commission and the Member States in the EU. The collaboration aims to protect European health through the implementation and harmonization of European tobacco legislation. One of the work packages was led by RIVM, entitled 'Additives subject to enhanced reporting obligations'. A new JATC will start in the summer of 2021. RIVM will again lead a work package, this time aimed at evaluating the health impact and regulatory implications of e-cigarettes and novel tobacco products.