Stefanie was only a senior in high school when she picked up her first menthol cigarette. “I started hanging out with a new friend group and, in an attempt to fit in, I began smoking menthols.” Before then, she had never considered smoking because of the horrible taste. But the cool mint of menthol masked the taste of ash, so she began consistently smoking at parties and other social activities.
Soon, Stefanie found that playing soccer, her varsity sport, was getting harder as she struggled more than normal to catch her breath. This only got worse as her smoking frequency increased and she began to play sports in college. Her soccer coach decided to confront her about the problem but, instead of quitting cigarettes, Stefanie quit the soccer team. “I became a habitual smoker; it was just part of my universe. It was a social thing in which everyone I hung out with would constantly smoke, even in bars and restaurants, which at the time was allowed.”
Her dependence on mentholated tobacco products didn’t improve as she moved into the next stage of her life. In fact, after making a big move and beginning her career as a lawyer, Stefanie found menthol cigarettes to be a comfort and stress reliever. “It gave me a minute to turn my brain off. I ended up smoking about two packs a day as a new lawyer,” she recalled.
As the world changed and the health challenges became more obvious, Stefanie went through phases where she tried to quit. “I tried patches, I used an inhaler, I got on medication, but nothing seemed to work. It was also becoming very costly because cigarette prices kept going up,” she said. Finally, by making a pact with her soon-to-be husband, she was able to wean herself off tobacco. “We both agreed we were going to quit tobacco and so I went on [varenicline], which helped turn off those cravings.” It wasn’t easy, but Stefanie has been smokefree for 10 years.
And then the pandemic hit. “It was a crazy time in my life. I quit my job, we sold our house and bought a new one and I found myself, for the first time in a decade, craving a menthol cigarette to help relieve all the stress I was feeling.”
Stefanie was surprised how quickly she picked up the habit once again. “I am a smart woman and I know how bad cigarettes are for me, but that didn’t matter because those chemicals get so ingrained in your brain,” she said. When she did contract COVID-19, she was disheartened when she got much sicker than her husband and realized it all came back to her smoking. She knew she had to quit again.
“Menthol is just trying to mask what a cigarette really is, which is a burning carcinogen in your mouth. They shouldn’t be allowed to hide something that is so unhealthy behind a flavoring. I've struggled for 25 years now with this, and it was something that I casually picked up as a teenager because I wanted to hang out with the cool kids. And it was made easier by the fact that it tasted good.”
The American Lung Association has worked diligently to get all flavored tobacco, including menthol, removed from the market. Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes would reduce the ease of experimenting with cigarettes, particularly among younger users, and encourage people who smoke menthol cigarettes to quit, reducing overall use of tobacco products. “With the science and understanding that we have now, there is no one who should pick up tobacco and think they are going to be exempt from its effects,” Stefanie said.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023