Days after a ban came in Japan Tobacco International launched a range of alternative products containing menthol but complying with the law. Campaigners have called on Public Health England [PHE] to immediately prohibit the sale of cigarettes like New Superking Green and Sterling New Dual as the devastating health toll emerges. PHE said it is worried certain tobacco products that may have a characterising menthol flavour are still being sold.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: “We warned the Government the flavour ban wasn’t working and they were supposed to have carried out a review of the legislation and published their response by May 20. A month later and there’s still a deathly silence. As the sales figures show, limiting the ban to only flavours defined as ‘characterising’ has left a loophole so large the ban is pretty much worthless. It’s time for the Government to act, to prevent people dying from smoking whose lives could have been saved.”
Menthol was outlawed on May 20, 2020 because it hides the harsh taste of tobacco and makes cigarettes more appealing to children.
But JTI sparked fury by unveiling “menthol replacement” cigarettes. Industry figures leaked to this newspaper reveal that in the 12-months since the ban the company sold more than 100m packs – equal to more than 2bn individual cigarettes – and made around £91.65m in profits from menthol brands.
Unpublished market data produced by Nielsen for cigarette manufacturers – seen by the Express – also shows some 707,000 smokers were buying the products by the end of 2020.
Based on market trends it is feared 602,751 new customers will be lured to them this year unless health chiefs enforce the ban.
Metrics show around 241,000 people who would otherwise have given up are still smoking because they switched to new menthol brands instead of quitting via vaping, nicotine replacement or simply going cold turkey.
With smoking-related illnesses killing half of smokers it means an estimated 120,600 lives could be lost as a result of the failure to order JTI brands off the shelves.
That is as many people as lost their lives to Covid from the start of the pandemic up until February 21 this year, when the second major wave was tailing off.
Anti-smoking lobby group ASH lauded the ban as “long overdue” when it was announced, branding menthol cigarettes “a public health disaster” warning it was helping 280 children a day take up the killer habit in England alone.
MPs on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health called for enforcement of the ban in its 2021 report on smoking and for the loophole to be closed by outlawing any menthol level at all.
PHE said: “We have communicated with manufacturers including Japan Tobacco International to alert them of concerns certain tobacco products that may have a characterising menthol flavour are still being sold. PHE is in the process of commissioning additional testing of cigarettes and an independent expert assessment of several products.”
JTI UK said: “We no longer sell cigarettes with characterising flavours (including flavoured capsule cigarettes).
“Cigarettes with a characterising menthol flavour have been banned from May 20, 2020. We are confident all our products are fully compliant with UK law.
“Some JTI cigarettes and rolling tobacco sold in the UK do still contain very low levels of menthol. This is not prohibited under the law, provided the use of such flavourings does not produce a clearly noticeable smell or taste other than one of tobacco – which they do not.
“The launch by competitors of similar products in EU markets shows they too are confident that products with low levels of menthol are permitted by law.
“All the ingredient information for our new products was shared with the authorities at both UK and EU level via the EU Common Entry Gate (EU-CEG) prior to their being placed on the market, so there is full transparency throughout this process. We look forward to providing further information if requested by the authorities.”