Are Menthol Cigarettes More Dangerous to Your Health? Uh, Maybe...

By Dirk Hanson 04/25/11

Are menthols more addictive and hazardous to your health than regular cigarettes? The FDA certainly thinks so. But a respected new study from the National Cancer Institute strongly disagrees.

So fresh, so smooth, so controversial.
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The battle over menthol continues. As an additive in cigarettes, it’s dangerous and should be pulled from the shelves, maintains the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And they can point to a nice pile of studies showing that young smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and other studies linking mentholated cigarettes to higher rates of disease. In animal test models, research seems to show that even short-term menthol use increases the penetration of tobacco carcinogens across exposed skin. Other studies have shown that the tobacco industry believes younger smokers prefer menthol because it tones down the harshness of nicotine.

So, clearly, menthol cigarettes are more addictive, and more hazardous to your health, right? Well, maybe not. This is science, after all. Nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it seems. A recent article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute threw a big bucket of cold water on the accumulated menthol findings. A study of 440 lung cancer patients and more than 2,000 matched patients without lung cancer showed no correlation at all between menthol and cancer. In fact, the researchers were surprised to discover that menthol smokers apppear to have a lower risk of lung cancer than other smokers. Asked whether menthol cigarettes are more toxic than non-menthol cigarettes, the study's author William Blot of Vanderbilt University definitively responded: “The answer is, no, they are not.” Great. This general confusion somehow inspired Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal to rise in support of the FDA and denounce Big Tobacco for using menthol “to market to kids and lure them into lifetimes of addiction and disease.” Glad that’s all cleared up now.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]