Are Menthol Smokers Different? An Economic Perspective
Of the 45.7 million current smokers in the U.S. age 12 and over, more than 18.5 million usually smoke menthol cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a tobacco product standard that would prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes (FDA 2022b). Although menthol is not harmful per se, the FDA concludes that the prohibition of menthol in cigarettes is appropriate for public health, meeting the criterion established by the 2009 Tobacco Control Act for FDA regulation of tobacco products. In this paper we explore whether menthol smokers are different in ways that provide an applied welfare economics rationale to prohibit menthol. In national data from the 2018-2019 Tobacco Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey (TUS-CPS), after controlling for socio-demographics, we mainly find small associations between menthol use and smoking behaviors, many quitting behaviors, and cigarette purchase behaviors. Although menthol use is much more common among Black smokers, Blacks are less likely to be current smokers, and conditional on current smoking Blacks are less likely to be daily smokers, are less likely to have started smoking before age 18, smoke fewer cigarettes per day, and are less likely to be addicted. In data from a 2021 Cornell Online Survey, we find no evidence that menthol smokers are less informed or are more likely to experience smoking-related internalities. Our analysis of stated preference data suggests that menthol and non-menthol smokers have similar preferences over tobacco product attributes, except that menthol smokers have a stronger preference for flavored e-cigarettes. In a potentially important exception to the patterns just described, in the 2018-2019 TUS-CPS data we find evidence that among ever smokers, menthol smokers and Black smokers are less likely to be lifetime quitters.
Produced with the help of a grant to Cornell University from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, Inc. (FSFW), a U.S. nonprofit 501(c) (3) private foundation. This study is, under the terms of the grant agreement with FSFW, editorially independent of FSFW. The FSFW had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, or interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication. The contents, selection, and presentation of facts, as well as any opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and under no circumstances shall be regarded as reflecting the positions of FSFW. FSFW accepts charitable gifts from PMI Global Services Inc. (PMI), which manufactures cigarettes and other tobacco products. Under FSFW’s Bylaws and Pledge Agreement with PMI, FSFW is independent from PMI and the tobacco industry. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.