A new study published in the current issue of the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research reports that menthol smokers are more likely to believe that menthol cigarettes have medicinal properties and that they are less hazardous than regular cigarettes (see: Unger JB, Allen B, Leonard E, Wenten M, Cruz TB. Menthol and non-menthol cigarette use among Black smokers in Southern California. Nicotine and Tobacco Research 2010; 12:398-407).
The study examined the attitudes and beliefs of 720 Black smokers living in Los Angeles County. According to the study: "Fifty-seven percent of respondents were menthol-only smokers, 15% were regular-only smokers, and 28% smoked both menthols and regular cigarettes (combined smokers). In bivariate models, menthol-only and combined smokers had stronger beliefs in the medicinal effects of menthols relative to regular-only smokers. Menthol-only smokers held stronger beliefs, relative to regular-only smokers, that menthols were less harmful than regular cigarettes. Menthol-only smokers preferred the menthol taste/sensation more than combined smokers, who preferred the menthol taste/sensation more than regular-only smokers."
The study concludes: "Health education efforts are needed to dispel the myth that menthol cigarettes are more medicinal and less harmful than regular cigarettes. Prevention and cessation efforts in Black communities can be tailored to reflect predictors of menthol smoking to reduce tobacco-related morbidity and mortality."
The Rest of the Story
While much of the discussion over menthol cigarettes has focused on the issues of whether or not menthol is harmful (i.e., has adverse health effects) or whether menthol adds to the addictiveness of cigarettes, this study adds a new dimension to the debate: whether the marketing of menthol leads to inaccurate perceptions of the relative safety of menthol cigarettes among consumers who smoke these brands. Perceptions that menthol cigarettes are less harmful could, in turn, lead to either increased cigarette consumption or a decreased motivation to quit smoking.
It is important to recognize that the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee was not charged with looking specifically at the question of whether menthol adds health harm or addictive potential to cigarette smoking. The Committee was given a broad mandate to examine the impact of menthol cigarettes on the public's health. That impact would certainly include distorted perceptions of the relative safety of menthol cigarettes among smokers who choose menthol brands.
This research adds important evidence regarding the impact of the marketing of menthol cigarettes on the public's health. It needs to be considered by the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee as part of its overall examination of the menthol issue.