Anti-smoking advocates have made considerable strides in their effort to restrict tobacco companies’ power. But despite the ads lambasting big tobacco and regulations prohibiting commercial ad spots, cigarette manufacturers still find success in grooming young people into the smoking lifestyle through the production of menthol cigarettes, which are easier to smoke and have become the cigarette of choice among teens.
Researchers from the University of Buffalo compiled data on 390,000 people aged 12 and up who filled out health and drug use surveys, in order to estimate the smoking rates for menthol and non-menthol users from 2004 to 2010. Among 84,000 smokers, the researchers found 57 percent of smokers between 12 and 17 years old used menthol cigarettes, while smokers aged 18-25 smoked menthols 45 percent of the time. Set against the backdrop of all cigarette smoking, menthol use has stayed the same or even increased despite the declines overall.
"Our findings support that the presence of menthol cigarettes in the marketplace has slowed progress in reducing smoking prevalence in the U.S.," study co-author Andrea Villanti, associate director for regulatory science and policy at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, said in the news release. "This is of great concern given the tremendous health effects of smoking cigarettes."
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, cigarettes contribute to 440,000 — or one out of every five — deaths and another 49,400 from exposure to secondhand smoke. Both lung cancer and heart disease come with greater risk as a result of inhaling cigarette smoke.
Given that menthol cigarettes contain menthol, a cooling compound that activates the cold receptors in the skin, smoking the cigarettes is much more tolerable for young smokers whose lungs can’t handle harsher brands. One 2004 study found that smoking mentholated cigarettes actually inhibits the body’s ability to metabolize nicotine, putting a smoker at greater risk for cancer as his or her body must confront the drug in greater concentrations.
"Simply stated, menthol sweetens the poison, making it easier to smoke," said lead researcher Gary Giovino, chairman of the department of community health and health behaviors at the University at Buffalo.
Compared to the 57 percent smoking menthols among teenagers, 30.5 to 33 percent of smokers older than 25 smoked mentholated cigarettes. Nonmentholated cigarette smoking decreased among all ages; meanwhile, menthol use increased among all young adults — in particular, younger, non-white females were most likely to smoke menthols. Camel and Marlboro brand cigarettes saw increases in adolescent and young adult segments. Roughly 19 percent of Americans smoke cigarettes.
“The study results should inform the FDA regarding the potential public health impact of a menthol ban,” Giovino said. “This research provides an important view of the trends and patterns of menthol use in the nation as a whole. The FDA will consider these findings and findings from multiple other studies as it goes forward.”
As an aside, Giovino remarked on a 1950s campaign from Kool that suggested menthol cigarettes were a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes, eventually leading one of Giovino’s friends to tell him he didn’t “think that menthol cigarette smoking was that dangerous because he was told that they were good for you if you got a cold.”
“This ‘urban legend’ has persisted,” he said.