Big Tobacco’s most common — and addictive — cigarette flavor, menthol, is still on store shelves. According to the FDA, however, this could soon change. In April, the agency announced tentative plans to ban menthol cigarettes, which could impact millions of smokers. This announcement comes on the heels of the 2020 FDA flavor ban that left menthol products on the market.
While it’s predicted the menthol ban won’t take effect for years, it gives cessation programs like the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline an opportunity to provide menthol smokers support to quit before the flavor is pulled.
What is Menthol?
In the old days, menthol was extracted from peppermint plants. Now, it can also be synthetically produced. Its mint-like flavor masks the harsh taste of tobacco while giving users an intense cooling sensation. This unique characteristic means smokers are numb to the toll caused by each draw — perfect for luring first-time users. Menthol is so effective at smoothing out tobacco that it’s used in most non-flavored cigarettes. That’s right, tobacco companies put menthol flavoring in non-menthol labelled cigarettes.
What makes menthol harder to quit?
Menthol cigarettes give smokers a cooling sensation as they inhale, which stimulates pleasure centers in the brain. That taste and mouth feel act like a secondary buzz — totally independent of, yet reinforced by, the nicotine high. In other words, menthol users get two buzzes at once. A dangerous and highly addictive combination that hooks first-timers and keeps users coming back.
The effects of menthol extend well beyond taste. It acts as a painkiller to hide nicotine irritation, which researchers believe allows smokers to inhale deeper than traditional cigarettes. Doing so allows for the cancer-causing chemicals to be drawn deeper in the lungs.
Studies show menthol smokers have a higher urge to quit than non-menthol users. In spite of this, they are less likely to successfully quit.
Who uses menthol?
Menthol-specific brands like Newport and Kool were created and heavily marketed to African Americans. In fact, menthol ads can be seen at just about any convenience store. On average, people in African American neighborhoods see 2.6 times more tobacco advertising than other areas. Kids grow up with brands like Newport and Kool deeply ingrained in their consciousness.
Youth & Menthol
Menthol plays a role in the youth vaping epidemic, too. Right now, it is the second most popular flavor among high schoolers — and adults. Remember the 2020 FDA flavor ban? It permitted the continued sale of menthol flavored vapes.
The seriousness of youth vaping cannot be overstated. Nicotine exposure at a young age sets kids up for a lifetime of addiction. It also increases the likelihood they’ll become cigarette smokers later in life. Vaping is also linked to an outbreak of EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury), requiring hospitalization and intensive medical treatment.
Flavors like menthol are a strategic centerpiece for tobacco and vape companies. That’s why it’s time to take menthol off store shelves for good.
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