Why Health Experts Want to Crack Down on Menthol Cigarettes, Flavored Cigars  

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker
Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker

| 4 min read

Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, MD, is a quality medical director for utilization management at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. She is an internal medicine physician with experience in utilization management, care management and disease management, and is a volunteer faculty member at Wayne State University Medical School. She is married with two children, and enjoys gardening, reading, crafts, music, community service and travel.

Menthol cigarettes are particularly dangerous because the analgesic and cooling effects of menthol mask the potency of the cigarette smoke, making the harmful ingredients more easily absorbed by the body. They’re also extremely addictive, even relative to other cigarette types.  
In 2019 there were more than 18.5 million menthol cigarette smokers aged 12 and older in the United States. This included high rates of smokers who were teenagers, young adults, individuals who are African American/Black, and other racial and ethnic groups. This statistic is from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which announced it will ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars in 2022. Through the ban, the agency hopes to reduce disease and death from tobacco product use by reducing youth experimentation and addiction. Menthol cigarettes are particularly dangerous because the analgesic and cooling effects of menthol mask the potency of the cigarette smoke, making the harmful ingredients more easily absorbed by the body. They’re also extremely addictive, even relative to other cigarette types. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who smoke menthol cigarettes may be less likely to successfully quit than people who smoke non-menthol cigarettes. The proportion of people who tried and succeeded in quitting non-menthol cigarettes is greater than the proportion of people who have tried and succeeded in quitting menthol cigarettes. Fewer people now smoke cigarettes than in the past, but the percentage of people from certain population groups who smoke menthol cigarettes has either increased or remains unchanged, per the CDC.

Use of Menthol Products in the Black Community

Black adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups. According to a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 85% of Black smokers preferred menthol cigarettes. Historically, menthol cigarettes have been heavily marketed toward Black people, especially in urban communities. The tobacco industry has historically attempted to maintain a positive image among Black people. Targeted advertising techniques among tobacco companies have included: 
  • Devoting more shelf space to retail outlets in predominantly Black neighborhoods. 
  • Making contributions to minority higher education institutions, elected officials, civic and community organizations, and scholarship programs. 
  • Supporting cultural events. 
  • Using discounts and multi-pack coupons — which are most often used by Black people and other minority groups, women and young people — to increase sales. 
Cigarette use among Black individuals has devastating health impacts: 
  • Published modeling studies estimate that 324,000 to 654,000 smoking attributable deaths will be avoided over the next 40 years if menthol cigarettes are no longer available in the U.S. Black smokers would make up between 92,000 and 238,000 (15% and 37%, respectively) of those estimated deaths, according to the studies.
  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death (22%) among Black men in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Among Black women, lung cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death (17%) in the U.S., behind only breast cancer (18%). 

Healthier Ways to Cope with Stress

Cigarette smoking is commonly associated with short-term stress relief. It’s used by people – especially habitual smokers – as a coping mechanism. But smoking does not solve the problems that cause stress. Furthermore, nicotine addiction itself causes its own stress.  Here are some healthy ways to combat stress: 
  • Cutting back on coffee and caffeine 
  • Drinking lots of water 
  • Eating a balanced diet 
  • Getting plenty of sleep 
  • Making time for self-care
  • Taking slow, deep breaths 
  • Talking through feelings of stress with loved ones 
  • Stretching and exercise 

Smoking Cessation Help

There are hotlines and online resources available to those who want to quit smoking for good.  
  • Download the quitSTART smartphone app, a free app that helps people quit smoking through tailored tips, inspiration, craving management, challenges and more. The quitSTART app is a product of Smokefree.gov
  • Individuals can check with their health insurance company to see if tobacco cessation resources are available to them at a free or reduced cost.
  • Take the first step by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support. 
  • Text “QUITNOW” to 333888 to join the National Texting Portal. This allows smokers to sign up for text messaging services that include encouragement, advice and tips. 
Gina Lynem-Walker, M.D., is an associate medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health news and information, visit MIBluesPerspectives.com. Photo credit: Getty Images Related content:

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