Menthol versus regular cigarettes: Which is more harmful?

Originally Published: April 22, 2005
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Dear Alice,

I have heard that menthol cigarettes are more harmful than regular ones. Is this true, and if so, why?

Dear Reader,

Menthol, a mint-derived substance, causes skin to feel cooler by arousing nerve endings that sense cold temperatures. Cigarette manufacturers use menthol because it mellows the taste of burning cigarettes. Interestingly, intake of menthol is pretty safe. Animal studies indicate that high doses of menthol distributed over a long period of time do not cause observable organ toxicities. Even when burned, menthol doesn't produce carcinogens. Menthol ingestion from cigarettes is carried to the liver, where it is broken down into harmless chemicals that are then excreted from the body.

Some research suggests that those who smoke menthol cigarettes take in a higher concentration of carcinogens and experience more smoking-related illnesses than do people who smoke regular cigarettes. This may be because when smoking menthol cigarettes, the pleasant, cooling sensation causes the user to inhale more tobacco smoke with each drag. This extra intake of carcinogenic substances by menthol smokers may be the cause of higher incidences of smoking-related sicknesses. As a result, menthol cigarette smokers may become more quickly addicted and also may smoke more cigarettes than those who smoke non-mentholated cigarettes. The cycle repeats, with smokers continuing to smoke more cigarettes to feed the addiction. Thus, smokers of menthol cigarettes have a higher rate of smoking-related ailments than smokers of regular cigarettes.

Of course, this theory includes variables on a person-to-person basis, since the amounts of smoke per drag differs, as do the types and brands of cigarettes smoked. The design of the cigarette can even change how much smoke people can inhale each time (i.e., filtered vs. unfiltered). Regardless of these variables, the bottom line still stands: any type of smoking is harmful to one's health, even if someone is not inhaling, or if s/he is inhaling second-hand smoke. People can develop mouth or throat cancer as easily as lung cancer or other smoking-related illnesses.

Interestingly, some studies indicate that menthol cigarette users are more apt to be minorities. For example, one study shows that 65 percent or more of African-American smokers choose to use menthol cigarettes, compared to only 25 - 30 percent of Caucasian smokers. Marketing plays a major role in influencing people to choose menthol cigarettes to smoke.

You can check out the following resources for any additional info about menthol cigarettes, smoking, and smoking-related illnesses:

American Lung Association web site

American Heart Association web site
Alice