TORONTO - One of Canada's largest tobacco companies has introduced a new type of menthol cigarette that the Canadian Cancer Society worries could get more teens and young adults hooked on smoking.
The cigarettes, sold by Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc., contain a capsule of liquid menthol inside their filters, which a smoker can squeeze to get a burst of flavour while taking a puff.
Four brands of the smokes are being sold in parts of Canada for the first time, although squeezable menthol filters have been available in other countries for years, said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.
"And we're concerned that this is a new gimmick that will be attractive to kids, that will contribute to experimentation and addiction," he said, explaining that menthol can soothe the throat and soften the harshness of tobacco smoke.
The cooling substance - whether inhaled through a traditional menthol brand or a squeezable filter - makes it easier for young people to get hooked on the addictive habit and masks throat irritation, "which for many smokers is a motivation to quit," Cunningham said from Ottawa.
"This seems like a last-ditch effort by the company to sell menthol before legislative bans come into force."
Alberta and Nova Scotia have already banned the sale of menthol and other flavoured tobacco products, and Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick are expected to have similar legislation in place next year.
Rothmans Benson & Hedges, which is owned by international tobacco giant Philip Morris, did not accommodate a request by The Canadian Press for an interview.
However, in an emailed response Wednesday, a company spokesperson said "all of RBH's products ... are fully compliant with federal and provincial tobacco control regulations."
"All tobacco products in Canada contain large graphic health warnings, are not visible at point of sale and require age verification for purchase. Our products are not marketed, or made for sale, to anyone under the legal age, and we support strong legislation to ensure minors cannot purchase tobacco products."
Despite such legislation, which typically prohibits the sale of tobacco products to those under 19, the most recent Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey showed 11 per cent of teens aged 15 to 19 and 18 per cent of those 20 to 24 smoke tobacco, compared to 15 per cent of the overall population.
"And menthol is far more popular among youth than among adults," said Cunningham. "Only about five per cent of Canadian adults smoke menthol, but 29 per cent of youth do."
The Cancer Society wants the federal and provincial-territorial governments to take action to rid the Canadian market of menthol as well as other flavour-enhanced tobacco products.
"From our perspective, the sooner the menthol bans come into force the better," he said.
"But we also want the new federal government to move quickly on its election commitment to strengthen the federal tobacco control strategy."
That strategy expires March 31, 2017, he said, noting that the Tobacco Act is "woefully out of date" and hookah smoking, electronic cigarettes and many flavoured tobacco products were not even an issue when the legislation was adopted in 1996.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott was not available for an interview Wednesday, but a Health Canada spokesman said regulatory amendments to the Tobacco Act come into force Dec. 14, further restricting flavours used to market cigars that appeal to youth.
"Menthol flavouring is not captured in these regulatory amendments," Sean Upton said by email.
"The department continues to evaluate data on the use of other flavoured tobacco products by youth, including menthol."