Blowing smoke in the face of a ban - Foundation for a Smoke-Free World

Blowing smoke in the face of a ban

On May 20, the European Union (EU) implemented a ban on the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes. Though accounting for only about 5% of cigarettes consumed in the EU, menthol cigarettes have long been a target of regulators who view flavors as a device to attract youth to the habit. While the effect on youth uptake remains to be seen, early research suggests few adult menthol smokers plan to quit as a result of the ban—or the pandemic.

Ahead of the enactment of the legislation, the Foundation supported a survey of over 6,000 adult menthol cigarette smokers in eight EU countries (Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). Now completed, the survey documents, among other things, respondents’ intention to quit or switch in light of the ban. It also queries the extent to which COVID-19 has altered smoking habits in this group.

This survey finds that only about 12% of respondents intended to quit cigarettes completely in response to the ban. Most respondents had alternative plans for accommodating the change, the most common responses being:

  • “I will stop consuming menthol cigarettes, but will continue consuming non-menthol cigarettes.” (35%)
  • “I will switch to other menthol tobacco products not affected by the ban, such as menthol cigars, cigarillos, e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.” (19%)
  • “I will stop consuming menthol cigarettes, but will increase my consumption of non-menthol cigarettes.” (13%)

Like the ban, the pandemic appears to have had little impact on users’ motivation to quit. Nearly 55% of respondents indicated that COVID-19 has not affected their consumption of tobacco or nicotine products; and more than 29% reported consuming more tobacco or nicotine products than usual. Only 16% of respondents reported consuming fewer tobacco or nicotine products than usual during COVID-19.

It is important to acknowledge that a major goal of the menthol cigarette ban is to reduce the uptake of smoking among youth. Deborah Arnott​, Chief Executive of​ Action on Smoking and Health, has stated: “menthol makes it easier for young people to start smoking because it masks the harshness when they first try to inhale.” The survey does not explore effects on youth smoking.

In the US, concern about youth health has manifested differently. American legislators have enacted flavor bans on e-cigarettes. New York State, for example, implemented an e-cigarette flavor ban on May 18, 2020, citing worry about youth uptake. Notably, the US is the largest menthol cigarette market in the world, with menthol accounting for about 29% of the total cigarette volume, according to Euromonitor.

In the coming months and years, researchers will, no doubt, be watching closely to examine the ways in which these regulations affect behavior and consumption trends in Europe and elsewhere. To that end, the Foundation is supporting a follow-up survey that will monitor the extent to which the EU menthol cigarette ban actually changes smoking habits among adult smokers.

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