What Are the Effects of Smoking Menthol Cigarettes?

FDA Examines Menthol Cigarettes, With Possible Ban In Sight
Menthol cigarettes for sale (Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Menthol is a natural compound found in plants such as mint, peppermint and spearmint. It is added to cigarettes to enhance flavor and for its cooling and soothing effects. A 2013 report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted that menthol cigarettes have the same negative health consequences as nonmenthol cigarettes and are not a "safer" alternative. In fact, the addition of menthol makes cigarettes more appealing to new smokers since it masks the bitter taste and irritating effects of tobacco smoke. The FDA report also stated that menthol cigarettes might be more addictive.

Increased Exposure to Nicotine

FDA Examines Menthol Cigarettes, With Possible Ban In Sight
Man smoking a cigarette (Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Menthol in cigarettes reduces the pain, irritation and itching associated with tobacco smoke, making it more comfortable to smoke. As a result, menthol cigarettes are more appealing to first-time smokers, allowing for a faster progression from experimentation to regular use. Furthermore, menthol's cooling effects in the lungs allow you to inhale more often, more deeply and hold the smoke longer, increasing lung exposure to nicotine. Nicotine is not only addictive, but it contributes to heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

Addictive Effects

FDA Examines Menthol Cigarettes, With Possible Ban In Sight
Woman taking a menthol cigarette out of the pack (Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Menthol stimulates the same nerves in the mouth and throat as nicotine and increases the favorable impact associated with smoking. Tobacco companies use menthol to replace nicotine in "lite" cigarettes since it provides the same or greater impact as nicotine. The FDA found that menthol in cigarettes is likely associated with increased smoking addiction and greater difficulty quitting. People who smoke menthols are more likely to smoke their first cigarette within 5 minutes of waking and to awaken during the night to smoke. Menthol cigarette smokers also have increased cravings for cigarettes compared with nonmenthol smokers.

Devastating Health Effects

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Doctor looking at a chest X-ray (Image: ramzihachicho/iStock/Getty Images)

Cigarette smoking is the primary cause of lung cancer and causes other cancers throughout the body. Smoking is the leading risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis leads to heart disease, stroke and peripheral artery disease. People who smoke have a reduced quality of life due to smoking-related illnesses and a shortened lifespan.

Menthol does not reduce the harmful effects of smoking. Rather, menthol makes it easier to start and become addicted -- and harder to quit. The Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee of the FDA recommended in 2011 that menthol cigarettes be removed from the marketplace. As of May 2015, this recommendation is still under review.

No Medicinal Effects

FDA Examines Menthol Cigarettes, With Possible Ban In Sight
Menthol cigarettes for sale (Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Tobacco companies originally marketed menthols in the 1950s and 1960s, touting medicinal purposes, and later promoted them as a refreshing, healthy alternative to regular cigarettes. Though patently false, these messages still linger. A study of menthol smokers reported in the April 2010 issue of "Nicotine & Tobacco Research" found a significant number of participants believed that menthol cigarettes have medicinal effects, such as soothing a sore throat or loosening a stuffy nose. While menthol does provide a cooling sensation while blunting bitterness, the FDA emphasizes that menthol cigarettes provide no medicinal or health benefits.

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