Children who experiment with menthol cigarettes are more likely to become habitual smokers than their peers who start out with the regular variety, according to a US study that looked at tens of thousands of students.
The researchers, whose results appeared in the journal Addiction, found that children who were dabbling with menthol cigarettes were 80 per cent more likely to become regular smokers over the next few years, compared to those experimenting with regular cigarettes.
Menthol is added to cigarettes to give them a minty “refreshing” flavour, and critics have charged that menthol makes cigarettes more palatable to new smokers - many of whom are kids - and may be especially likely to encourage addiction.
“This study adds additional evidence that menthol cigarettes are a potential risk factor for kids becoming established, adult smokers,” said study leader James Nonnemaker, of the research institute RTI International in North Carolina.
He cautioned, though, that the findings do not prove that the menthol cigarettes themselves are to blame, given limitations in the study.
The study covered three years’ worth of surveys of over 47,000 US middle school and high school students. That included almost 1,800 children who had just started smoking during the first or second survey, one third of whom had opted for menthol cigarettes.
By the third-year survey, more than half of those experimenters had quit smoking. Another third were still occasional smokers, and 15 per cent had become habitual smokers.
The odds of becoming a regular smoker, the study found, were 80 per cent higher for kids who’d started off with menthol cigarettes. That was with the kids’ age, gender and race taken into account.
The results were consistent with the idea that menthol cigarettes encourage kids to get hooked because of menthol’s “sensory properties,” according to Nonnemaker.
But more studies are needed, he said. One question is whether the findings might vary by race. This study included mostly white students, but it’s known that young African-Americans and Asian Americans are especially likely to smoke menthol varieties.
One recent study found that menthol smokers have a higher stroke rate than those who favoured the non-menthol variety. Another, however, found no higher risk of lung cancer, and no evidence that menthol fans had a harder time kicking the smoking habit.