An investigation while we were tied to Brussels was blocked by meddling Eurocrats. But now we have left the bloc Public Health England confirmed it would start testing products that campaigners claim were cynically marketed for children. A ban on “characterising flavours”, including menthol, came into force last May because the fresh taste masks the tobacco and is seen as luring young smokers.
On the same day the diktat was enforced Japanese Tobacco International launched a series of new brands, promoting them under the slogan “menthol reimagined”.
They were later forced to admit they still contained the minty substance.
PHE was stopped from investigating or stripping the products from shop shelves by the EU which insisted on a Europe-wide approach instead.
It meant the Government was forced to comply with the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive until the end of the transition period.
Brexit freedoms now mean the EU can no longer overrule the UK so PHE – an agency of the Department of Health and Social Care – has reopened its investigation into JTI, Britain’s best selling tobacco company.
It said: “The Government committed to comply with the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive until the United Kingdom and the EU’s transition period ended.
“The investigation into the selling of cigarette products that have a characterising menthol flavour is currently going through the process in accordance with the European Union (EU) Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2016/779.
“PHE has been preparing to begin testing products of interest now the transition period is complete and is in the process of commissioning an independent expert assessment of several products. In the meantime, PHE has communicated with manufacturers to alert them of its concerns that certain tobacco products that may have a characterising menthol flavour are still being sold.”
JTI is estimated to make £3 million every day its menthol replacements brands are sold in the UK, capitalising on rivals who scrapped their products to comply with the new law.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action of Smoking & Health, said: ”Flavours are added to make cigarettes easier to smoke which makes it easier for children to get addicted. That’s why the ban was introduced.
“Just this month the Government launched a consultation on whether the ban was working. Clearly it’s not as JTI has put ‘menthol-reimagined’ products on the market arguing they don’t include ‘characterising’ flavours. This is clearly a loophole but it is easy to fix – the Government should ban all flavours, characterising or not.”
It is thought 280 children take up smoking every day in England. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is pushing for a smoke-free society by 2030.
Around a quarter of cigarettes smoked at the time of the ban were menthol, and most manufacturers scrapped them to comply.
But JTI – part-owned by the Japanese government – launched a new range including Sterling New Dual, Mayfair New Green and Benson & Hedges New Blue Dual.
The branding was in the same green packaging and even the names were kept the same as JTI’s previous familiar menthol range – but with the word “New” inserted in front.
They were launched under the slogan “menthol reimagined”.
It even set up a password-protected online training hub for retailers teaching them in how to push its new “fresh” range as a direct replacement to menthol smokers seeking a hit once the ban came in.
Smokers mocked how the cigarettes – marketed as having a “fresh” taste – were beating the ban.
Ellie Rylance said: “For anyone who thinks menthols have gone forever, they’re not. Sterling New Dual and B&H New Dual are a ‘special blend’ to get round the law but they’re menthol.”
A JTI UK spokesman said: “We no longer sell cigarettes with characterising flavours (including flavoured capsule cigarettes). Cigarettes with a characterising menthol flavour have been banned from May 2020. We are confident all our products are fully compliant with UK law.
“Some JTI cigarettes and rolling tobacco sold in the UK do still contain very low levels of menthol. This is not prohibited under the law, provided the use of such flavourings does not produce a clearly noticeable smell or taste other than one of tobacco – which they do not.
“All the ingredient information for our new products was shared with the authorities at both UK and EU level via the EU Common Entry Gate (EU-CEG) prior to their being placed on the market, so there is full transparency throughout this process.”