Cigarettes are bad. No doubt about it. I haven’t found any product on the market meant for consumption that has as many bad things in it as cigarettes. Even the tobacco companies admit that much. But what is so insidious is not the actual cigarette. It’s how the cigarette is marketed and what chemicals are added to make it seem a lot safer than in reality. And when a product is marketed, you find the easiest group to market to.
For menthol cigarettes, that group was African-Americans.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, menthol cigarettes were directly marketed at the African-American population. The marketing was so blatant, so targeted, so effective that we look at it with a combination of disgust and awe. The tobacco companies not only blanketed neighborhoods with a high proportion of African-Americans with menthol advertisements, they wove menthol cigarettes directly into the African-American jazz culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and promoted menthols as young, hip, new and, most importantly, healthy. It is no coincidence that Kool cigarettes capitalized on this new “cool” culture.
But why is menthol so important? Don’t the tobacco companies claim it is just another flavor.
The medicinal properties of menthol have been known for thousands of years, and the same effects that soothe your soar throat or open up your sinuses also work to increase uptake of smoking, increase addiction to nicotine, and decrease smoking cessation rates.
Cigarette smoke is hot, up to 1,200o F hot, and nicotine itself is incredibly irritating. That’s actually how smokers know how much nicotine there are ingesting. The irritation caused by each puff allows the smoker to titrate the dose of nicotine to exactly the amount necessary to provide the desired effects
When low levels of menthol are added to a cigarette, the cooling effect of menthol can take over. Your throat is less irritated, your airway opens up a little bit more, and you inhale the smoke deeper into the lungs. You can also absorb more nicotine. In high doses, menthol can actually enhance the sensory effects of nicotine. Even though the overall number of cigarettes smoke has decreased over time, the number of menthol cigarettes smoked as remained constant.
In short, menthol does a lot more than provide flavor. In fact, flavor is the least important thing menthol does.
If menthol is so bad, can’t we just get rid of it like all of the other cigarette flavors?
Sadly, no. When the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed in 2009, an exemption to the ban on flavors was made for menthol. We are stuck with them for the time being, despite the large body of evidence that eliminating menthol would increase quit rates across the country.
But why is this so important now?
Menthol, and other flavors, will continue to be important because it is continually used in new tobacco products.
Menthol is a key ingredient in Camel Snus Frost, which is being promoted by R.J. Reynolds to be used in places where you would otherwise be unable to smoke (Snus as a spitless tobacco product that comes in a tea-bag like pouch). In this instance, menthol is being used to enhance the ability for smokers and non-smokers alike to use this product, masking the negative sensory properties of nicotine and tobacco as a whole.
Menthol is also one of many flavors used in electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco but instead vaporize a nicotine solution that is inhaled. But remember, nicotine is irritating and there is little in e-cigarettes other than the flavor to mask this effect. That’s where menthol and other flavors come in. Decrease the pain associated with nicotine and increase nicotine consumption. It is really a very simple premise.
As new products come to market, they need to find a target audience. For e-cigarettes, the audience most affected has been youth. E-cigarette use among teens and adolescents doubled between 2011 and 2012. For snus, the targets could be smokers, the health-conscious, or those who simply can’t afford a pack of cigarettes.
It is chemicals like menthol that make it easier to use these, and it is tobacco companies who will target the most vulnerable, the most susceptible populations.
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