A Stanford University School of Medicine study finds that tobacco companies increased the advertising and lowered the sale price of menthol cigarettes in stores near California high schools with larger populations of African-American students. Although cigarette makers have denied using race or ethnicity to target customers, the study found a “predatory” marketing pattern geared to luring young African Americans into becoming smokers.

The findings of the study will appear in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

“The tobacco companies went out of their way to argue to the Food & Drug Administration that they don’t use racial targeting,” said Lisa Henriksen, PhD, study author and senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. “This evidence is not consistent with those claims.”

For the study, the researchers found that the preference for menthol cigarettes among teenage smokers increased from 43.4% in 2004 to 48.3% in 2008. Menthol cigarettes were also most popular among African-American smokers ages 12 to 17 (71.9%), compared to Hispanics (47%) and non-Hispanic whites (41%) of the same ages.

To find out how the leading brands of menthol and non-menthol cigarettes were promoted near California high schools, the researchers randomly selected convenience stores, small markets, and other tobacco retailers within easy walking distance of 91 schools. The researchers then rated how the cigarettes were marketed in those stores. The data were collected in 2006.

The researchers found that for every 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of African-American students at a school, the proportion of advertisements for menthol cigarettes increased by 5.9 percentage points. Additionally, the odds of an advertised discount for Newport, the leading brand of menthol cigarettes, were 1.5 times greater.

When it came to price, the average per-pack price for Newport was $4.37 at the time of the study, with Marlboro—the leading nonmenthol brand—averaging $3.99. It also found that for every 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of African-American students at the nearby school, the per-pack price for Newport was $0.12 lower. Advertised discounts and prices for Marlboro, however, were unrelated to school or neighborhood demographics.

In addition, the study found that for each 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of neighborhood residents ages 10-17, the proportion of menthol advertisements increased by 11.6 percentage points, and the odds of an advertised discount for Newport was 5.3 times greater.

The study comes as the FDA is gathering information on whether to ban menthol as a flavoring agent in cigarettes. A federal law passed in 2008 banned 13 candy flavorings in cigarettes but allowed continued use of menthol.

A draft report by the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, which the FDA asked to investigate the harms from the use and marketing of menthol cigarettes, found that the use of menthol cigarettes is highest among minorities, teenagers, and low-income populations. While the report says that “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States,” the FDA doesn’t have to follow the group’s recommendation.

The committee is scheduled to meet July 21, 2011, to discuss final changes to the document. An FDA spokesperson said there is no timeline yet as to when the FDA will then make a decision.

Source: Stanford University Medical Center