Government ponders move to stub out menthol cigarettes

Single cigarettes
Cigarettes have been engineered as nicotine-delivery devices.
MPR Photo/Melanie Sommer

"Menthol makes a deadly product more palatable" and should be banned from cigarettes, says a Mayo Clinic doctor who works on nicotine addiction.

Dr. Richard Hurt told The Daily Circuit on Tuesday that the addition of chemicals like menthol to cigarettes "makes it easier to start and harder to stop."

Hurt's comments followed the release of federal Food and Drug Administration survey that found menthol cigarettes are a bigger threat to public health than other cigarettes. The finding was contained in a review released this morning.

Hurt explained that menthol cools cigarette smoke, making it easier to inhale and thus more attractive to young people. "What we've known about this for a long, long time is that menthol cigarettes, the ones like Kool, Salem, Newport, are a starter product for our kids," he said. Because they are easier to inhale more deeply, menthols have been attractive to people who have less money to spend and want to get the most for their nicotine dollar.

"If you can't smoke a large number of cigarettes, you need to be able to inhale the ones you can smoke more deeply and get more nicotine out of them," he said.

Hurt said that when he was a smoker in the 1960s, he smoked heavily: three packs a day. Because 60 regular Marlboros would have been harsh to his system, he said, he alternated Marlboros with Belairs, a menthol brand. "It made it so I could smoke even more."

Tobacco companies, he said, engineer cigarettes to be efficient nicotine-delivery devices. By addicting smokers to nicotine, they ensure future sales of cigarettes. By adding menthol, they make it easier for young people to pick up the addiction. And because menthol smokers become so thoroughly addicted, they find it harder to stop.

"It's very clear that the cigarette manufacturers have known for decades what they were doing and what the outcome was going to be," he said. In the century since the first Camel was introduced, he said, an estimated 100 million people have died of smoking-related causes.

Hurt hopes the FDA bans menthol, and then moves toward reducing the allowable nicotine in cigarettes to less addictive levels. "The wheels are moving slowly, but they're beginning to move," he said.