No Menthol Sunday: Menthol in Cigarettes Makes it Harder To Quit Smoking
Guest Blog by Adam Alexander, Ph.D., Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center
Menthol favor has been around for almost a century. The flavor, like all flavorings in cigarettes, is designed to affect the “taste” of smoking traditional tobacco. Menthol makes it easier for a person to endure the taste of the product while they develop a lifelong addiction to nicotine. Most people don’t know that about 90% of cigarettes contain menthol at some level. At low concentrations, it reduces the “harshness” of breathing in toxic chemicals and smoke on the lungs. Just because it doesn’t have “menthol” on the label doesn’t mean that the flavor isn’t in the product.
Who uses menthol cigarettes?
African Americans overwhelmingly use menthol cigarettes in the United States. As a comparison, 77% of African Americans smoke menthol-flavored cigarettes versus 29% of White Americans. The most popular brand of menthol cigarettes today is Newport, a company that invests heavily in advertising featuring African Americans.
Beyond advertising, why do African Americans use menthol cigarettes more?
That is part of my research. I spend time working with populations where we see disparities in smoking. When I see African Americans using flavored tobacco more than other groups, I start wondering why? Most smokers would tell you that flavoring cut down on the harsh taste of tobacco. But smokers should be asking what it is that is being hidden inside that menthol flavor. The answer is nicotine. And, what they don’t know is that smoking a flavored product may make it harder for a person to quit smoking. I read a study recently that suggests that among African Americans, those who smoke menthol cigarettes are 12% less likely to be able to quit smoking successfully.
Menthol smoking is not less dangerous than regular smoking. And quitting will be harder. That’s why people need to seek out professional services and nicotine replacement therapies to give themselves the best chance to quit. There are so many resources to quit. Both the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline (OKhelpline.com and 1-800-QUIT NOW) and the Tobacco Treatment Research Program (TTRP) have resources to help you quit. Smokers don’t have to do this alone.
Menthol as part of my research
People know smoking is bad for them and is probably knocking a few years off their life. That means the populations that are still smoking have other things going on in their lives that are creating pressure. Poverty or mental illness is prevalent. We have to work with them, help them and address them where they’re at to help them quit. But to help them, first, we must understand these other factors that might be keeping them smoking beyond nicotine addiction.
For example, in the African American community, a person might experience discrimination or unfair treatment based on their race. When this happens, they have all kinds of emotional responses and energy that builds up, and research shows that people sometimes respond to discrimination by engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
The problem is that cessation interventions are not designed to treat or account for discrimination. So, when we begin planning smoking cessation strategies, we can’t just start with smoking. In these instances, we must start addressing those other issues as well as nicotine addiction. If we can find ways to address multiple problems all at once using smoking cessation best practices, we should start seeing greater success with these important populations.
No Menthol Sunday: What We Can Do
I would be happy if all menthol smokers quit on No Menthol Sunday, or even one person quit. But, I am more focused on raising awareness. We must help people understand the real risks of continuing to smoke in any form. Smoking is harmful to health, especially for groups like African Americans that often have other health risk factors like obesity or diabetes. Beyond that, smoking is the precursor to many diseases. Don’t place yourself at higher risk for any illness that might end up taking your life.
All the research points to these conclusions. More evidence and more information help people make more informed and better decisions about when to quit. I do believe that if more African Americans knew that smoking menthol would make it harder to quit for good, they would make changes and reach out to places like TTRP or OKHelpline.com for resources.
Adam Alexander is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His research seeks to understand the cultural, socioeconomic and biological determinants of physical and mental health, with an emphasis on examining and explaining health disparities. His research also examines the effect of traumatic events on physical and mental health outcomes. Adam holds a doctoral degree in social and behavioral sciences from the University of Memphis, and a master’s degree in general psychology, also from the University of Memphis.