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Are Menthol Cigarettes Riskier Than Non-Menthol?

Study Shows Menthol Cigarettes Are No More Likely to Lead to Lung Cancer Than Regular Cigarettes

All Cigarettes Pose Health Risks

All cigarettes are created equal when it comes to health risks, says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Menthol cigarettes are as dangerous as non-menthol cigarettes and cigarettes are the No. 1 cause of heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other diseases.”

Regardless of whether you smoke menthol or non-menthol, “set a date after which you will be an ex-smoker,” he says. There are many smoking-cessation tools available today, including nicotine-replacement systems such as patches and gum.

Amy V. Lukowski, PsyD, clinical director of the Health Initiatives Programs at National Jewish Health in Denver, says that the study should not be interpreted to mean that menthol cigarettes are any safer than non-menthol cigarettes.

“Lung cancer is only part of the picture and smoking is known to cause heart disease, stroke, COPD, and so many other diseases,” she says. “Tobacco kills and we really need to focus our efforts on cessation for smokers and stopping people from starting in the first place.”

Debate Over a Ban on Menthol Cigarettes

Lukowski is in favor of a ban on menthol cigarettes. “Almost half of young people use menthol cigarettes due to their minty taste so this is an important product to not have on the market,” she says.

The new findings dovetail nicely with the FDA panel’s recent recommendation, says David Abrams, PhD, the executive director of the Steven A. Schroeder National Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Legacy, a public health group that aims to stamp out tobacco smoking.

The FDA panel stated that it was not clear that menthol cigarettes caused any additional risks at the individual level to the individual smoker, he says.

Although the new study did not show that there was any difference in quitting success rates among menthol vs. non-menthol smokers, “other research suggests very strongly that menthol smokers want to quit more and have more difficulty with quitting and succeeding,” he says.

“More kids start with menthol cigarettes, and adults have more trouble quitting when they smoke menthol,” Abrams. “This evidence is consistent and strong enough to warrant a ban on menthol.”

Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director for the American Council on Science and Health, a New York City-based consumer education group, sees the issue differently. “Menthol smokers have no increased risk of lung cancer or any other cigarette-related disease as compared to non-menthol smokers,” he says.

“It is well-known that menthol smokers smoke fewer cigarettes per day than regular cigarette smokers [and this is] but one reason why it is highly unlikely that banning menthol cigarettes will lead to a decrease in cigarette smokers,” Ross says. “In fact, I believe such a ban may actually increase the number of cigarettes smoked because few menthol smokers will actually quit, [instead] fleeing to illicit menthols and/or regulars,” he says.  “More minors will find illicit cigarettes that are easily available from sellers who neither check ID's nor pay taxes.”

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