FDA moves toward regulating menthol in cigarettes

The FDA signaled Tuesday that it would take steps to limit or ban the use of menthol in cigarettes. The additive makes them especially addictive, studies show.
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Mentholated cigarettes are more appealing to new smokers, more addictive to longtime smokers and pose a greater threat to the public’s health than does unflavored tobacco, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday as it announced a new round of efforts to regulate the use of menthol as a tobacco additive.

In releasing a comprehensive review of research on menthol’s effects on smokers, the agency conceded that tobacco flavored with peppermint oil extract likely poses no greater disease risk to smokers than does unflavored tobacco. But its 153-page report concluded that menthol in tobacco is linked to “altered physiological responses to tobacco smoke.” Those, in turn, may contribute to its addictive qualities.

The report opens a 60-day public comment period that could set the groundwork for new tobacco restrictions.

“FDA’s actions today on menthol reflect our commitment to explore all potential options, including the establishment of product standards,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.


The agency acknowledged that the weight of any actions it may take would fall disproportionately on minority communities. Mentholated cigarettes are the choice of nearly 75% of African American smokers and roughly 30% of Latino smokers, and are marketed heavily in those communities. By contrast, just over 20% of non-Latino whites smoke menthol cigarettes.

The FDA said it would sponsor three new studies of menthol as a tobacco additive. One of those is to explore whether genetic differences in taste perception may explain such strikingly different patterns of preference for mentholated tobacco.

That research may help untangle the web of factors that has made menthol cigarettes a mainstay of African American smokers. The FDA acknowledged that heavy marketing of menthol cigarettes aimed at this group has contributed to that pattern of preference. But research is increasingly focused on physiological differences that might make certain groups more vulnerable to the allure of menthol-laced tobacco.

Some research has suggested that a genetic variant more common in African Americans may set in motion a variety of metabolic responses to nicotine that could steer a smoker toward mentholated cigarettes.

The action coincides with the release of new research that undergirds the mounting suspicion that tobacco with added menthol behaves differently inside the human body than does tobacco alone.

In a study released by the journal PLoS One on Tuesday, a multinational team of neuroscientists showed that menthol acts on the same neuroreceptors in the human brain as nicotine, the principal addictive substance in tobacco. In regions of the brain that are key in reward-seeking and addiction, menthol’s action appears to suppress the strength of cells’ response to nicotine. That, in turn, may increase a smoker’s drive to take in more.

“Today I cannot tell you that menthol cigarettes are more addictive,” said Nadine Kabbani of George Mason University in Virginia, one of the paper’s senior authors. “But I can tell you that they’re increasingly found to have biological and biophysical properties that go beyond flavor.”

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