Menthol in cigarettes: not just a harmless minty fresh flavour

Menthol is a compound that is commonly isolated from mint plants and is often found in gum, mints and toothpaste that gives the feeling of a cool, clean mouth. Menthol can often be found in medications where it is used to mask unpleasant tastes. Menthol can also be found in cigarettes and are popular among many smokers because it masks the taste of cigarettes and can numb your lungs to the burning sensation often associated with smoking. Menthol cigarettes make up about 90% of cigarettes marketed in the US and alarmingly almost half of young smokers from the ages of 12-17 are reported to smoke and prefer menthol cigarettes with a large proportion of these adolescents being African American. For many young smokers, menthol cigarettes act as an easy entry to smoking addictions because of their gentler taste. Menthol cigarettes where originally marketed by the tobacco industry as a safer alternative to normal cigarettes because of the cool fresh feeling they leave users with. However, evidence in recent years is beginning to overturn that misguided advertising pitch.

  • Research showing that menthol cigarettes provided smokers with a greater exposure to nicotine primarily because menthol acts to prevent the breakdown of nicotine in the brain allowing it to hang around for longer.
  • A study in 2013 found that people who smoke menthol cigarettes often have a more difficult time quitting and also relapse into smoking more often.
  • When researchers looked at the levels of the nicotine receptor in the brain of non-menthol cigarette smokers and menthol cigarette smokers they saw that the menthol cigarette smokers had a greater number of these receptors in the brain presumably because they had more nicotine floating around in their brains (since menthol prevents it from being broken down).

Addiction to any drug over time results in your body needing more of the drug to get the desired effect. This is called desensitization. Imagine desensitization like this, you have a 5 dogs who you feed once a day. Those dogs slowly start to grow and as such require more and more food to be full. If you try and feed them with the same amount of food as you originally did, they will still be hungry and will likely whine and pester you till they get more food; this is desensitization. You may notice this effect with coffee (caffeine) as you probably need more and more coffee to stay awake now then you did a few years ago when you started drinking it for the first time.

  • Research by another group identified menthol to have the ability to desensitize the nicotine receptors meaning you will need more and more cigarettes to get your fix. This will have terrible consequences for your body, in particular your lungs.
  • Menthol was even found to affect the dopamine system in your brain, which is responsible for the reward system in your brain and is often altered in drug addiction.
  • Some of the most recent research shows that mice exposed to menthol alone without nicotine had an increase in the number of nicotine receptors in regions of their brain associated with addiction. The mice didn’t even need nicotine for this to happen.
    • You can see how bad this can get if we go back to our example of desensitization. Take those same 5 dogs that you need to feed more to satisfy. Now imagine someone drops of 5 more dogs that need feeding as well. There is no way that the amount of food you are currently feeding to the original 5 dogs will be able to cover 10 dogs so you need to get more food. On top of that, those 5 new dogs will start to grow (become desensitized) and begin to need more food, so the amount of food you need just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The same thing applies to nicotine, you have receptors that need more nicotine to satisfy and now you also have more receptors to give nicotine to. As such, you need to take in more and more nicotine until you can’t go more than 30 minutes with a cigarette. See, menthol makes things much worse.

All of this research is beginning to add up to show that menthol additives to cigarettes are dangerous and can aid in making nicotine more addictive than it already is. Menthol in gum has not shown to be harmful and it still provides useful benefit as a topical agent for numbing pain and cooling; however, these same properties that make it useful in other uses make it dangerous for use in cigarettes. There has been a large push to ban flavoured cigarettes primarily because they are often marketed to young people in an effort to get them smoking. Menthol, however, has escaped the ban so far even though it is likely even more harmful than the flavouring in cigarettes. Long gone are the days when menthol cigarettes were marketed as “tasting like a cigarette should” or “cool as a mountain stream”.

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