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 was the only flavor allowed in cigarettes in sufficient quantity to be a "characterizing flavor." Tobacco companies have relied on the soothing and cooling effects of menthol to make cigarettes more appealing to new smokers, youth, Black Americans and LGBTQ Americans among others. The marketing of menthol cigarettes has been targeted at Black 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
A recent study quantified the disproportionate harms from menthol cigarettes to Black Americans, finding that menthol cigarettes were responsible for 1.5 million new smokers, 157,000 smoking-related premature deaths and 1.5 million life years lost among Black Americans from 1980-2018.8
Disproportionately Impacted Populations
The tobacco industry has targeted their marketing for menthol cigarettes specifically to certain racial/ethnic groups, especially Black Americans since the 1950s.6 The industry has also marketed menthol cigarettes extensively to the LGBTQ community.
This has resulted in:
- More than 8 in 10 of Black Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes.1
- About 48% of Hispanic individuals who smoke use menthol cigarettes.1
- About 41% of Asian individuals who smoke 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 LGB individuals at 49% compared to 40% among heterosexuals.1
On May 4, 2022, FDA issued two proposed rules that would stop the sale of cigarettes with menthol as a characterizing flavor and remove all flavored cigars from the marketplace. This action is long overdue and will save lives and reduce tobacco-related health disparities. While the number of people smoking continues to decrease, the presence of menthol on the market continues to be an issue. As of 2020, about 37% of all cigarette sales were 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 will be submitting comments in support of FDA’s proposed rules on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars and encourage the public to join us.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's public online data analysis system (PDAS). National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2019.
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, April 29, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/products-ingredients-components/menthol-and-other-flavors-tobacco-products
Proctor R. Golden holocaust: origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 2012.
U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Cigarette Report for 2020. Washington: Federal Trade Commission, 2021.
Mendez D, Le TTT. Consequences of a match made in hell: the harm caused by menthol smoking to the African American population over 1980-2018. Tob Control. 2021 Sep 16:tobaccocontrol-2021-056748.
Page last updated: November 17, 2022