Menthol is a chemical naturally found in peppermint and other mint plants, but it can also be made in a lab. First added to tobacco in the 1920s and 1930s, menthol reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke and the irritation from nicotine. Under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that gives the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products, menthol is the only characterizing flavor allowed in cigarettes in sufficient quantity to be a "characterizing flavor." But almost all cigarettes contain at least some menthol, likely because of its cooling properties. Tobacco companies have relied on the soothing and cooling effects of menthol to make cigarettes more appealing to new smokers, youth and certain racial/ethnic groups especially African Americans. The marketing of menthol cigarettes has been targeted at African Americans for decades.
More than 18.9 million people currently smoke menthol cigarettes.1 Flavors, including menthol, are one of the primary reasons kids start using tobacco products.
Health Effects of Menthol
When inhaled, menthol can reduce airway pain and irritation from cigarette smoke and suppress coughing, giving smokers the illusion of breathing more easily. However, despite what some marketing messages may seem to suggest, menthol cigarettes offer no health benefits compared to non-menthol cigarettes.2 In fact, the minty taste and odor can mask the early warning symptoms of smoking-induced respiratory problems.3
Menthol cigarettes have also been found to increase both the likelihood of becoming addicted and also the degree of addiction.2,4 Scientific evidence also indicates that menthol smokers are less likely than non-menthol smokers to successfully quit smoking despite having a higher urge to end their tobacco dependence.5
The tobacco industry has been marketing specifically to certain racial/ethnic groups, specifically the African American community, with a focus on menthol cigarettes since the 1950s.6
- More than 8 in 10, or 82% of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes.1
- About 46% of Hispanic smokers use menthols.1
- About 44% of Asian smokers prefer menthol cigarettes.1
- About half of youth smokers ages 12-17 smoke menthols. That percentage is higher than the about 40% of adults 18 and older who prefer menthols.1
- Menthol cigarette use is more prevalent among the LGBT community at 50% compared to 38% among heterosexuals.1
In 2009, the FDA passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which allowed continued use of menthol cigarettes while removing all other flavored cigarettes from the marketplace. The Act called for completion of a report on the public health impact of menthol cigarettes within the first year after establishing the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. The resulting report concluded that allowing menthol in cigarettes harmed public health and should be removed from the marketplace. To date, FDA has not formally proposed to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes. So, while the number of people smoking continues to decrease, the presence of menthol on the market continues to be an issue. As of 2017, about 35% of all cigarette sales where menthol cigarettes, the highest rate since major tobacco companies were required to report this data.7
The American Lung Association has long supported the removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace. In April 2013, we submitted a formal petition to the FDA, requesting the prohibition of menthol as a characterizing flavor of cigarettes. We continue to speak out and advocate for the removal of menthol cigarettes from the market.
Learn more about our efforts and what you can do to help eliminate menthol from the marketplace.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's public online data analysis system (PDAS). National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2017.
Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Menthol cigarettes and Public Health: Review of the Scientific Evidence and Recommendations (2011)
Kreslake, Jennifer M., and Valerie B. Yerger. “Tobacco Industry Knowledge of the Role of Menthol in Chemosensory Perception of Tobacco Smoke.” Nicotine & Tobacco Research 12, no. Supplement 2 (December 2010). https://doi.org/10.1093/ntr/ntq208.
Hoffman AC, Simmons D. “Menthol cigarette smoking and nicotine dependence.” Tobacco Induced Diseases. 2011;9(1):S5
“Menthol and Other Flavors in Tobacco Products.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, July 20, 2018.
Proctor R. Golden holocaust: origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 2012.
“Menthol and Cigarettes.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, August 1, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/tobacco_industry/menthol-cigarettes/index.html
Page last updated: March 24, 2020