EU: Menthol Cigarettes are Out

While the US has issued a ban on all e-cigarette flavors except tobacco and menthol, the fresh, minty flavor will soon no longer be available to conventional cigarette smokers in Europe as a full ban on menthol kicks-in. 

Staff Report Starting on May 20, menthol cigarettes will be banned in the European Union and UK, under the European Union Revised Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Despite Brexit, the UK is still bound under TPD since EU laws will all become part of UK law as part of the Brexit process, or at least until the end of 2020. However, the ban does not cover Switzerland, which is not part of the EU. Although the official terminology used in TPD is “tobacco products with characterizing flavors”, as only a small proportion of smokers in the EU and UK use other “characterizing flavors”, this is actually more a ban on menthol cigarettes. Fruit-flavored and sweet cigarettes have already been banned since 2017. 

The ban covers menthol cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco, and skinny cigarettes, as well as capsule, click-on, click & roll, crushball, or dual menthol cigarettes, but does not cover heated tobacco products or e-cigarette products. The reasoning behind the ban is the claim that flavoring, especially menthol, in cigarettes and tobacco will encourage more young people to start smoking. While a real concern, this in itself seems to be too weak a reason for a complete ban on an entire class of tobacco products, especially as there is no conclusive evidence to support the claim yet. However, what is more concerning is the fact that this ban is effectively restricting the choices that adult smokers would and should have yet again. The ban will also effect what manufacturers can offer in these markets. 

“Tobacco remains a resilient product category. Our objective has always been to offer informed adult smokers the widest possible choice of products, including both new and traditional blends of tobacco,” said Femi Namfua, Japan Tobacco International’s (JTI) corporate media relations director. “These include our Logic brand e-cigarettes in a wide range of flavors, our Ploom tobacco vapor products, and our new nicotine pouches from Nordic Spirit, but it’s still too early to predict what current menthol smokers will do once their preferred products disappear from shelves. We hope the menthol ban won’t lead smokers to the illegal trade as this will completely defeat the purpose of the ban - something we warned regulators about during the proposal phase of the new regulation.” 

A British American Tobacco spokesperson said, “At BAT, we are committed to offering adult smokers and nicotine consumers a range of products with potentially reduced risk, when compared to smoking. We have a range of non-combustible menthol products within our diverse portfolio – these products include vapor and tobacco heating products and are all TPD2 compliant.” The ban on menthol tobacco products could also lead to an increase in illicit trade as smokers turn to the black market to seek out what they want.

“There is insufficient evidence to support the claim that a prohibition of menthol tobacco products will affect smoking rates as campaigners suggest. Such a ban is, therefore, an unjustified restriction on adult consumer choice, and sets a dangerous precedent for other products beyond the tobacco category,” JTI’s Namfua pointed out. “There is no data available about how existing menthol smokers will choose to act once their preferred products disappear from shelves so there is a very real danger that some could be tempted to switch to the illegal market, creating a big profit opportunity for criminals.” “Menthol is a very traditional flavor of tobacco products which has been around for decades, and it remains popular in many parts of the world. The danger in the EU and UK, and especially in countries like Poland for example, where more than 25% of smokers choose menthol tobacco, is that menthol smokers there may look to illegal channels to buy their preferred flavors in future.” 

In the US, efforts to also ban menthol cigarettes has also been gaining steam in several states, including California, Maine, Maryland, New York, Vermont, and Virginia, as well as a federal proposal to ban flavors in all tobacco products including e-cigarettes, increase the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21, ban all non-face-to-face sales for tobacco products, and control the marketing of tobacco products. With the EU’s TPD ban on menthol cigarettes and the US appearing to move in the same direction, it would seem a likely possibility that countries in other parts of the world would consider the same restrictions. “We expect that other jurisdictions will want to watch closely for any change in the number of smokers choosing illegal products,” said Namfua. “Every cigarette smoked from the illegal market is reducing tax revenues and putting profits into the pockets of criminals.” “We consider it our obligation to speak up whenever unjustified or excessive regulations are proposed, but tobacco remains a highly competitive market. We will continue to offer informed adult smokers the widest possible choice of products, both traditional tobacco and newer products like our Logic e-cigarette, our Nordic Spirit nicotine pouches, or our Ploom tobacco vapor products.” 

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