It’s our nature to resist change. What seems like a terrible idea at the outset often gets better over time. New ideas become familiar. We adapt to change and leave the past to history. Inventions become necessities.
Tesla sold $67 billion worth of electric cars in 2021, and they’re still filling backorders. High gas prices aren’t going away anytime soon. You can re-charge your car at home. New habits form around change.
Sometime in the next 18 months or so, menthol cigarettes as we know them are going away. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) flavor ban is due to take place in January 2024. California’s menthol cigarette ban is scheduled for early 2023.
Injunctions and other legal actions may slow things down for a couple of months, but menthol cigarettes will still be history. Smugglers aren’t going to show up at wholesale loading docks with $22 billion of menthol inventory. But 11 million smokers will still want that deeply satisfying menthol flavor.
Nicotine Isn’t the Only Game in Town
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FDA menthol smoker research projects fewer than 25% will quit. The rest will either switch to regular cigarettes, vape or new forms of oral nicotine. But their data is based purely on a nicotine-driven tobacco marketplace.
Menthol and nicotine are separate factors in deciding whether to quit or cut down. The smooth, deep, chill of menthol puts a thumb on the scale of both intent and success at quitting. Data shows that the enjoyment of menthol shifts the balance.
Science says menthol makes it harder to quit. If nicotine-free alternatives were added to the equation, how many menthol smokers would try a premium quality tobacco-free menthol smoke? How many will make it more than an occasional pleasure with enough volume to be attractive to retailers?
If 60% switch to non-menthol cigarettes and another 20% of the 11 million menthol smokers quit, that leaves 2.2 million diehard menthol aficionados looking for the cooling satisfaction they once enjoyed and would like to find again. They may not smoke as frequently, but they’ll still have flavorless oral nicotine and vape to calm their nerves. The rest is all about the taste.
Based on retail audits and Nielsen data, the convenience store channel averages 33 retail facings of menthol cigarettes per store. Multiplied by 148,000 doors, that’s 4.8 million empty retail pack facings that will be looking for something new to ring the register.
Nobody believes retail operators will let those flavored shelf facings sit empty. While legal filings and restraining orders are happening, new nicotine-free menthol smokes with no federal or state excise taxes are likely on the way. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is an end-run.
Nicotine-Free Doesn’t Have to Taste Bad
Tobacco taste can be replicated at a pleasing level by legal flavor additives. Vape proved that. Menthol, however, is a biologically active compound. It adds the taste and cooling sensation menthol smokers enjoy, and the taste can have several dimensions.
According to tobacco researchers at Duke University, menthol also moderates nervous irritation or discomfort. Menthol smokers’ preference is perpetuated by nicotine. But for some, the neural pleasure may be even more satisfying without the nicotine.
Creating an enjoyable, good tasting, non-tobacco menthol will take more than a few herbs or tea leaves. It will need to deliver the neural response that resonates with menthol smokers who say they want to quit but really don’t want to. Exhaling that deep draw of Menthol becomes more like a sigh of relief.
Tesla will sell 1.7 million cars in 2022. Eighteen other major carmakers have launched electric models as the automotive paradigm shifts. If the pleasure of menthol is important enough to influence a switch, then there’s money on the table. Tobacco-free menthol can become part of the future. We’ll see.
John Geoghegan has spent the last 30 years in the tobacco business, including vice president strategic planning at General Cigar Co., U.S. manager for DjEEP Lighters, head of marketing for Kretek International Inc. and manager of LaMirada Cigar Co. He began his career 57 years ago at Procter & Gamble. Geoghegan is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati. He lives in Laguna Niguel, Calif.