Menthol paves way to addiction, study finds

A recent study discovered a link between menthol flavoring and increased smoking addiction.
A recent study discovered a link between menthol flavoring and increased smoking addiction. Photo by Sarah Eckinger.

Menthol cigarettes may cause people to smoke more and heighten addiction rates, a new study from Yale and the University of Connecticut shows.

The study, which was published online in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, found that mice became desensitized to the experience of smoking with the addition of menthol additives, in addition to demonstrating higher propensities for addiction. The team’s findings contest recent research produced with the support of tobacco companies, which have long played down the effects of menthol in cigarettes, at a time when the Food and Drug Administration is considering imposing a ban of the additive.

“There a lot of claims from the tobacco industry that there is no specific pharmacological response triggered by menthol, that it’s just for flavor” said associate professor of pharmacology Sven-Eric Jordt, the lead author of the study. “Our research tells us there is really a potent pharmacological action in addition to the flavor.”

Jordt cautioned it was “not clear” if his team’s results could be translated to people. But human beings and mice generally respond to irritants in similar ways, and previous data show there is a good correlation between these responses, he added.

Similar research funded by tobacco companies has reached the opposite conclusions of Jordt’s team. A March 23 report submitted to the FDA, “The Menthol Industry Report,” is one major piece of research filed by 18 tobacco industry stakeholders, including Lorillard Tobacco Company, which produces the popular Newport menthol cigarette that comprises 35 percent of menthol cigarette sales in the United States, according to The Associated Press.

“There is no scientific basis to support the regulation of menthol cigarettes any differently than nonmenthol cigarettes,” the report found.

The FDA has appointed an external committee to investigate the effect of menthol additives in cigarettes, Jordt said. Their findings are expected to be released in October, after which it will be subject to a period of public input before any final decision is reached by the FDA.

There is some political precedent to banning flavoring additives from cigarettes. Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, outlawing flavored tobacco additives such as cloves, cinnamon, candy, chocolate or fruit flavors, but menthol was exempt because of pressure from tobacco companies, Jordt said.

Despite the exemption, there is a growing movement against menthol cigarettes, even at home in New Haven.

Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 filed an April 18 letter to the FDA advocating the removal of menthol tobacco products from the marketplace, and Elm City officials interviewed in April unanimously supported a ban. But business proprietors said they worried about the loss of profits that might result.

Menthol cigarettes make up more than 80 percent of cigarette sales at Sam’s Food Shop on Whalley Avenue, said one employee who asked to remain anonymous because he was not permitted to speak to media.

First developed in 1927, menthol cigarettes constitute 20 percent of the American cigarette market according to United States Federal Trade Commission’s latest Cigarette Report, issued in 2009.

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