Science Explains Why the Flavor Makes Menthol Cigarettes More Addictive

Updated: Apr. 29, 2022

Plus, how manufacturers create the minty effect of menthol cigarettes.

The FDA’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. This week, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) took major steps to bolster President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot mission, which aims to reduce cancer death rates by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years.

The federal agency is advancing two tobacco product standards that would ban menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars. These new standards aim to build on the 2009 landmark Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned all forms of flavoring agents in cigarettes except for menthol.

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So why is the FDA trying to ban menthol cigarettes now?

The National Library of Medicine explains that companies first began adding menthol to cigarettes in the 1920s, but the ingredient didn’t become widely used until the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the American Thoracic Society says an estimated 25 percent of all cigarettes in the U.S. contain menthol.

To create the cool flavor, cigarette manufacturers extract menthol from peppermint or corn mint plants, or create it synthetically, and incorporate it into the cigarette filters.

Menthol—a type of alcohol—makes cigarette smoking more tolerable (and for some, arguably more pleasurable) in a few ways.

For starters, according to Truth Initiative, which identifies as America’s largest nonprofit public health organization committed to ending tobacco and nicotine use, menthol generates a tingly, cooling sensation in the mouth and throat that makes cigarette smoke and nicotine vapors less harsh. This cooling sensation also helps supress your coughing reflex, making it easier to inhale cigarette smoke. For many smokers, especially first-time or young smokers, the qualities of menthol increase the overall appeal and ease of use of cigarettes.

As it turns out, organizations like the American Thoracic Society also suggest that menthol makes cigarettes more addictive. The alcohol slows your breathing rate, which increases how long nicotine lingers in the lungs. It also slows down how quickly menthol is metabolized, or broken down, by the body, generating a longer-lasting effect.

The National Institutes of Health also points to studies which have found that menthol actually enhances nicotine’s addictive effects by amplifying nicotine-induced changes in the brain’s reward system and memory responses that contribute to addiction. This helps explain research showing that people who smoke menthol cigarettes have a stronger nicotine dependence and a harder time quitting smoking.

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Would banning menthol cigarettes and cigars really cut down on deaths?

While menthol is currently the only flavoring agent allowed in cigarettes, a wide range of appealing flavors are still legal in cigars. Most flavoring agents used in cigars are sweet and soothing, enticing more people to use them, especially youth and young adults.

A body of research in recent years has shown that banning menthol in cigarettes, and flavoring agents from cigars, could indeed reduce the number of people who start smoking and eventually die from smoking-related cancers.

One three-year study conducted in Canada and published in the British Medical Journal in 2021 concluded that banning menthol tobacco products in the U.S. would help an additional 923,000 people quit smoking in the 13 to 17 months following the ban’s implementation.

The FDA has also highlighted a 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health, which suggested that banning menthol tobacco products in the U.S. could help prevent some 633,000 deaths associated with smoking. Modeling studies have also estimated that smoking rates would reduce by 15 percent within the next 40 years if menthol cigarettes were no longer sold in the U.S.

Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars could also help reduce smoking-related health disparities. According to the FDA, use of menthol cigarettes is especially prevalent in youth, young adults, African Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups.

The proposed menthol product standards would not make it illegal for individuals to possess, purchase, or use menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars. Instead, it would target those that create, distribute, and sell these products in the U.S. (It’s important to note that local and state law agencies cannot enforce FDA regulations.)

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Here’s how you can weigh in on the proposed menthol ban

The FDA is seeking the public’s help to further iron out their proposed product standard regulations on menthol cigarettes. In particular, they’re looking for public input regarding the standard’s potential social and racial justice implications and how to clarify state and local law enforcement’s role in implementing the standards. From May 4 through July 5, 2022 you can submit written and electronic comments directly to the FDA. The FDA will also host public listening sessions June 13-15, 2022.

If things go as planned, the FDA will formally issue product standards banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars within the coming year.

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