The government wants to crack down on cigarettes with menthol, a flavour that's wildly popular and may make quitting even harder

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesMenthol cigarettes are popular among African American smokers, research shows.
  • On Thursday the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it wants to ban all cigarettes flavored with menthol.
  • In the US, menthol is a popular cigarette flavour, especially among African American and young smokers.
  • The cool, minty flavour may mask some of the unpleasant aspects of starting to smoke, the FDA commissioner said.
  • Some research suggests that menthol in cigarettes may make it harder to quit smoking.

Federal officials revealed plans this week to ban cool, minty menthol flavoring from traditional cigarettes as part of a larger push to curb vaping and smoking in young people.

In a statement released on Thursday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it’s seeking to limit sales of flavored vapes to ensure customers are over 18, in addition to banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

The move is meant to address rising rates of flavored e-cigarette use among teens.

From 2017 to 2018, there was a 78% increase in e-cig use among high schoolers and a 48% increase among middle schoolers . More than two-thirds are using flavored e-cigarettes, the statement said.


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So why is the FDA including menthol cigarettes in its crackdown?

It’s possible that the flavour of menthol could make it easier for young people to start smoking normal cigarettes, FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb explained in the statement. (That matters, because nearly 90% of current smokers first tried smoking by the time they were 18.)

“I believe these menthol-flavored products represent one of the most common and pernicious routes by which kids initiate on combustible cigarettes,” Gottlieb said in the statement. “The menthol serves to mask some of the unattractive features of smoking that might otherwise discourage a child.”

More than 50% of smokers aged 12 to 17 smoke menthols, according to the FDA.

But their use among young people isn’t the only potential issue linked to menthol cigarettes. A vast majority of African-American smokers smoke menthols – a disparity that’s often attributed to marketing campaigns targeting African-American communities. There’s also some research suggesting that menthols may be harder to quit than other types of cigarettes. Here’s what you should know about them.

Menthol cigarettes are popular among African American smokers

Cigarette cigarettes smoking GettyImages 476551310Getty ImagesMore than 80% of African American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes.

A whopping 84.6% of African-American smokers smoke menthols, compared with 44.4% of Hispanic smokers, 37.5% of Asian smokers, and 28.5% of White smokers, according to the FDA.

Some say this disparity is the result of cigarette companies historically targeting African American communities in their advertising.

As early as the 1960s, menthols were marketed toward African-Americans as a “‘smooth, ‘cool, and ‘healthier,’ alternatives to non-menthol cigarettes,” a 2010 report from the American Lung Association (ALA) said. “Four decades later, in 2002, a review … showed that magazines targeted to the black community were nearly 10 times more likely to have cigarette ads than more general audience magazines. And nearly 70 per cent of all the cigarette ads in those targeted magazines were for menthol brands.”


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Newer research offers evidence that this trend may be continuing. One 2012 study looked at tobacco sales near California high schools. It found that higher enrollment of African-American students was linked with a higher percentage of ads for menthols. And in 2013, a study of St. Louis concluded that menthol marketing was highest in areas with the highest percentages of black residents.

Even though African-Americans typically smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at older ages than whites, they’re more likely to die from smoking-related diseases, according to the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention). High menthol preference among African-American smokers has been suggested as a possible explanation for this troubling gap, the ALA report added, partly because some research indicates menthols may be harder to quit.

Some research suggests that menthol may make it harder to quit smoking

A 2011 preliminary report from the FDA said that, while there’s little evidence that menthols are more toxic or cause more disease than non-menthol cigarettes, the added flavour may still present additional problems. The report continued:

“Adequate data suggest that menthol use is likely associated with increased smoking initiation by youth and young adults. Further, the data indicate that menthol in cigarettes is likely associated with greater addiction. Menthol smokers show greater signs of nicotine dependence and are less likely to successfully quit smoking.”

Not every study on this topic has shown a link between menthols and quitting difficulties, as one 2011 review pointed out. But many have found a connection.

There are some potential explanations for why menthols may interfere with quitting attempts, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Addiction. The cooling effect of menthol may cause smokers to inhale more on each puff, possibly ramping up nicotine levels in their bodies, the authors wrote, and menthol smoking may also slow down the metabolism of nicotine in the body, which could contribute to greater dependence.

The bottom line is still that smoking cigarettes – menthol or otherwise – kills. But the FDA’s push to ban menthol flavoring could help prevent teens from picking up the habit.

“I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes,” Gottlieb said in the FDA statement. “We won’t let this pool of kids, a pool of future potential smokers, of future disease and death, to continue to build.”

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