The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an announcement stating it will be investigating the use of menthol in cigarettes.
The decision is based on a preliminary scientific evaluation of possible public health effects of menthol cigarettes, which reveals that menthol cigarettes are more highly addictive compared to standard tobacco.
The FDA is requesting information to influence its decision about possible regulatory options, which could include "tobacco product standards, sale and distribution restrictions among other regulatory actions and considerations."
According to the FDA, more than 40% of young smokers and 30% of all adult smokers in the US report smoking the mint-flavored cigarettes. Meanwhile, figures from the American Heart Association reveal that 1,200 Americans die each day from tobacco-related diseases.
Linking these figures together suggests that a high proportion of tobacco-related deaths are caused by menthol cigarettes.
Can menthol "promote" nicotine cravings?
A study published in the journal Frontiers has revealed how menthol cigarettes can trigger nicotine cravings.
Research from Nadine Kabbani of George Mason University, Virginia, found that menthol may directly promote nicotine craving because it binds to a specific nicotine receptor in the nerve cells called the a7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. In effect, menthol can alter the receptor's response to nicotine.
Additionally, it was found that menthol can initialize a long-term effect by triggering areas of the brain that process pleasure, reward and addiction.
The FDA report (resource no longer available at www.fda.gov) backs up the findings that menthol is, in fact, much more addictive compared to standard cigarettes, stating:
"While there is little evidence to suggest that menthol cigarettes are more or less toxic or contribute more to disease risk to the user than non-menthol cigarettes, adequate data suggest that menthol use is likely associated with increased smoking initiation by youth and young adults.
Of course, one of the main attractions of smoking a menthol cigarette is the minty flavor. It cools the back of the throat when inhaled, making it easier to smoke compared with standard cigarettes.
Menthol cigarettes can also limit the body's natural instinct to cough once a foreign substance enters the airway, making it easier for the smoker to inhale deeply.
Researcher Nadine Kabbani told Medical News Today:
"These cigarettes are generally described as tasting better or refreshing relative to non-mentholyated cigarettes and have, therefore, had an appeal.
However, individuals who smoke menthol cigarettes are known to find it more difficult to quit smoking and are more likely to relapse, when compared to other types of smokers."
Nadine Kabbani added: "To date, we do not have a clear biological picture of why this is the case. Data, from numerous labs, including ours, suggests there is a correlation between smoking menthol cigarettes and difficulty in quitting smoking. Additionally, relatively newer studies suggest that menthol, when added to nicotine cigarettes, can alter the metabolism of nicotine in the body. Even newer work, now suggests that menthol may also contribute to the ability of nicotine to interact with its receptor in neurons."
'Critical' public health issues
Based on the health risks associated with smoking menthol cigarettes, the FDA says they will consider all comments, data, research and other information submitted to them over the next 60 days in order to determine what regulatory action, if any, is appropriate.
Margaret Hamburg, managing director of the FDA, says:
"Menthol cigarettes raise critical public health questions. The FDA is committed to a science-based approach that addresses the public health issues raised by menthol cigarettes, and public input will help us make more informed decisions about how best to tackle this important issue moving forward."
The FDA says it also plans to support new research highlighting the differences between menthol and non-menthol cigarettes and the different health impacts, as well as analyzing menthol levels in cigarettes.
Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, says the announcement from the FDA makes it clear that there is an urgent need to prohibit menthol cigarettes:
"Menthol cigarettes are one of many products peddled to our nation's youth with the intent of addicting a new generation. If the FDA takes menthol cigarettes off the shelves, we will remove one product that lures young people into a deadly habit and sets them on the road to early hardening of the arteries and coronary artery disease in adulthood."