Objective: To examine tobacco industry marketing of menthol cigarettes and to determine what the tobacco industry knew about consumer perceptions of menthol.
Methods: A snowball sampling design was used to systematically search the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (LTDL) (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu) between 28 February and 27 April 2010. Of the approximately 11 million documents available in the LTDL, the iterative searches returned tens of thousands of results from the major US tobacco companies and affiliated organisations. A collection of 953 documents from the 1930s to the first decade of the 21st century relevant to 1 or more of the research questions were qualitatively analysed, as follows: (1) are/were menthol cigarettes marketed with health reassurance messages? (2) What other messages come from menthol cigarette advertising? (3) How do smokers view menthol cigarettes? (4) Were menthol cigarettes marketed to specific populations?
Results: Menthol cigarettes were marketed as, and are perceived by consumers to be, healthier than non-menthol cigarettes. Menthol cigarettes are also marketed to specific social and demographic groups, including African-Americans, young people and women, and are perceived by consumers to signal social group belonging.
Conclusions: The tobacco industry knew consumers perceived menthol as healthier than non-menthol cigarettes, and this was the intent behind marketing. Marketing emphasising menthol attracts consumers who may not otherwise progress to regular smoking, including young, inexperienced users and those who find 'regular' cigarettes undesirable. Such marketing may also appeal to health-concerned smokers who might otherwise quit.