Will the UK Menthol Ban Turn People Back to Standard Cigarettes

On Wednesday 20th May 2020, the UK will take the unparalleled litigation of banning the sale of all menthol tobacco products, under the new EU smoking laws. The new legislation states no person may produce or supply a cigarette or hand-rolling tobacco with:

(a) a filter, paper, package, capsule or other component containing flavourings;

(b) a filter, paper or capsule containing tobacco or nicotine; or

(c) a technical feature allowing the consumer to modify the smell, taste, or smoke intensity of the product.

This rather large step in trying to curb smoking habits is seen as a key stride forward is aiming to achieve the UK government’s ambitious proposal of becoming a smoke-free nation by 2030. However, with over 890,000 people in the UK claiming menthol as their main form of cigarette, as well an additional 2.2% of all smokers signalling alternative flavoured cigarettes, it’s highly unlikely that this huge amount of people will quit cigarettes as soon as the ban comes into force.

Many argue that the ban may push menthol smokers to just switch to standard cigarettes, which are equally as harmful, deepening the inherent problem the ban wishes to solve. With this in mind, we look at the implications of the menthol and flavoured cigarette ban and ask will it really work?

The Impact Of Menthol

Historically, in nations such as the US, menthol and flavoured cigarettes were forcibly marketed to the black and Hispanic demographic, evidenced by over 7 out of 10 African American young people (12-17 years old) claiming they smoke menthol cigarettes. In fact, nearly 90% of African-American smokers aged 12 and older use menthol cigarettes. This staggering statistic highlights that since the 1920s, tobacco companies have used menthol cigarettes to successfully target poorer and less privileged communities through culturally specific messaging and images playing upon the ‘cool’ persona.

In the UK however, menthol cigarettes were targeted towards a different demographic. The cooling effect and reduction in the robust flavour of tobacco was a key element that the tobacco industry in the UK tapped into, aiming menthol cigarettes to the huge market of females. Brands such as Saint Moritz, Kools and Vogue became associated with female smokers which as of 2018, accounted for 3.2 million of the population with 87% of these claiming they predominantly smoke menthol. The UK is, in fact, the most popular nation of menthol smokers in Europe with 12.4% of all smokers, next to Poland on 10.2% and Romania on 7.8%.

However, due to a large number of menthol smokers in the UK and the fact that history shows a blanket prohibition ban differs in results, is the UK expected to counter-intuitively increase smoking habits? Vape Club’s survey on the next steps for menthol smokers, indicates that a huge 56% of menthol smokers in the UK admit that they would continue to smoke using regular cigarettes or rolling tobacco. Alternatively, a predicted 40% of menthol smokers, the equivalent of 450,000 people, say they will quit when the ban commences. However, it’s worth pointing out that the recent COVID-19 pandemic also has some part to play with just under an estimated 300,000 smokers currently quitting due to the deadly virus.

Avoiding The Ban & Other Ways To Profit

These are of course large numbers either way, which would no doubt heavily influence the 2030 smoke-free target. What the menthol ban could unintentionally end up doing though, is create a black market of products to be illegally distributed throughout the UK. According to the Vape Club survey, an estimated 5.4% of menthol smokers are expected to stockpile supplies. Whilst a large amount of these stockpilers will be for personal consumption, it opens up a window for bootleggers to capitalise by purchasing a bulk of menthol tobacco products to redistribute illegally. History tells us, effectively removing a well-known and much-used set of products from a consistently stable market has been known to increase criminal activity, evidenced by the US prohibition of alcohol between 1920 and 1933.

This, of course, remains to be seen, and with being in the midst of a global pandemic crisis, it would invariably be difficult for bootleggers to prosper in the short term period after the ban. Saying this, with the ban confirmed way back in 2016, it has given tobacco companies time to reevaluate their logic for the large market gap which the ban curtails. Some of the tobacco juggernauts, such as Imperial, have gotten around the impending ban by introducing flavour fusion cards. These require for you to leave the small flavour card into an enclosed tobacco pouch for an hour, in which the result is a menthol flavoured tobacco which can be used for rolling cigarettes. A move that sneakily dodges the ban, whilst offering a legal alternative that can playback into the tobacco industry’s pocket.

In terms of more health-conscious methods, menthol smokers have either the option of quitting altogether or go down an alternative route which has proved incredibly successful for many nicotine addicts. Vaping has grown in increased popularity over the years, with currently over 3.6 million users in the UK. Many public health organisations, such as NHS, advocate for the use of vaping as a means of quitting cigarettes. In fact, Public Health England believes vaping to be ‘95% less harmful than smoking’, a statistic widely challenged by sensationalist media but never disproven. With many menthol and menthol fusion e-liquid flavours available, the survey indicates that 18% of menthol smokers intend to use vaping to quit when the ban comes about on the 20th May 2020.

Moving Forward

The future beckons for a huge proportion of people, not just in the UK but also across the European Union. Many view the ban as a way tobacco companies will ultimately come out on top and inevitably expand the issue further. Whilst the ban is aimed to dissuade people taking up smoking through a ‘characterising’ flavour, the fundamental concern is that standard cigarettes are still being sold throughout the world, constituting more than 8 million deaths per year across the globe.

Whilst it seems somewhat unthinkable to completely abolish the sale and purchase of all tobacco products indefinitely, the manner in which the ban has come about provides an ultimatum for a certain section of smokers to consider, which will need to be addressed in order to feed their nicotine habits. It acts as a reference point for politicians to seem like they’re taking into consideration the public’s health but rather feels like a twisting of the arm which could backfire and show no signs of improvement in tobacco habits.

All of this depends on what the vast majority of menthol smokers do next, whether they decide to take the government’s advice to quit smoking or continue to maintain the current status quo. Let’s just hope the menthol ban won’t be looked back on as a grave mistake in tobacco cessation history and instead pushes people towards a more healthy lifestyle.

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