Menthol has firm grip on smokers - but will Hong Kong ban them?
It is harder for people to give up the cool and mint-flavoured cigarettes, shows a study
Smokers of menthol cigarettes in Hong Kong are likely to find it harder to quit than if they smoked regular cigarettes, according to a new study.
But they may be forced to ditch the minty tobacco if Hong Kong follows Europe's lead by banning them altogether.
The mint-flavoured cigarettes do not appear to be linked to a higher risk of disease, but they are likely to pose a higher public health risk than non-menthol ones, said a review of scientific data by a US government agency.
The findings could lead to tougher regulations on menthol cigarettes in the United States. The European parliament approved a ban on menthol and strongly flavoured cigarettes as part of measures aimed at curbing smoking in the European Union.
In Hong Kong, menthol cigarettes have 26 per cent of the market share, according to a survey, while other surveys show more women than men prefer menthol cigarettes. Low tar menthol cigarettes attract a higher proportion of young adult women.
Researchers discovered that menthol cigarettes were appealing to women who wanted cigarettes with less tar, a weaker tobacco taste and smell.
In Hong Kong, the number of smokers dropped in the past two decades, hitting a low in 2010 when only 11.1 per cent of the people smoked daily.
Lisa Lau Man-man, chairwoman of the Council on Smoking and Health told the she welcomed the review by the US Food and Drug Administration.
She said that menthol and fruit flavoured cigarettes were targeted at, and popular with, the young and women.
"These may be a gateway for people who want to try smoking, but don't find the taste of normal cigarettes all that pleasurable," she said. "Flavoured cigarettes make it easier to get addicted."
Lau said the anti-smoking group would welcome a ban on menthol cigarettes as it would make it harder for the target groups to start smoking. "We want the public to know there are no safer cigarettes. Just because a cigarette has a lower tar content or a fruit flavour does not make it less harmful."
The US findings could have larger implications on the mainland. China is the largest consumer of tobacco in the world, according to the World Health Organisation's Global Adult Tobacco Survey.
About 28.1 per cent of mainland adults, mainly men, were smokers in 2010, and of these, 85.6 per cent lit up daily.
According to the FDA's independent review of scientific literature, menthol smokers are more likely to smoke their first cigarette within five minutes of waking, suggesting that the mint flavour is linked to "increased dependence", it said.