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Menthol Cigarettes: No Increased Cancer Risk, Says New Study

A surprising result from a new US study released in March 2011 indicates that menthol cigarettes pose no greater cancer risk to smokers than non-menthols. This contradicts an assumption held by many scientists that the addition of menthol leads to more exposure to toxins, therefore upping the risk for developing cancer. The new finding could have a significant effect on regulatory efforts to ban menthol smokes in the United States.

The study centered on a large number of older smokers utilizing community health centers.  According to Prof. William Blot at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Nashville, TN, “The key finding was that the risk of lung cancer was no higher in menthol smokers.

“In fact, it was a bit lower in mentholated compared to non-mentholated smokers and there was no significant difference in the rate of quitting smoking,” he elaborated in a telephone interview, saying that the lower risk rate surprised the researchers. “It was about 30 percent lower,” a number he called “statistically significantly lower.” “The hypothesis going in, although it wasn’t well supported, was that mentholated might be more toxic.”

Prof. Blot’s researchers studied adults 40-79 years of age who enrolled in the study through public health clinics in 12 states. Of these, 440 lung cancer patients were compared with 2,213 people of comparable sex, age, and race who did not suffer from lung cancer.  Menthol smokers smoking 20-plus cigarettes daily were approximately 12 times more likely to have developed lung cancer than persons who had never smoked at all. Non-menthol smokers who smoked similar amounts were 21 times more likely than non-smokers to be lung cancer sufferers.

For example, among people who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day, menthol smokers were about 12 times more likely to have lung cancer than people who had never smoked, while non-menthol smokers were about 21 times more likely to have the disease.

Menthol cigarette brands have been rising in popularity with adolescents and the highest use has been among younger, newer smokers.

Blot, who has no ties with tobacco companies, said his study only looked at older smokers and could not address concerns that adding menthol to cigarettes made it easier for younger smokers to tolerate smoking.

Menthol cigarettes are a particular issue partly because of their increasing popularity with adolescents and other young smokers new to the habit. Some health advocates have held that the minty quality cuts the harsh quality of plain tobacco and thus makes it easier for kids to start, harder for them to quit. Tobacco companies say that menthol has no effect on the riskiness or addictiveness of cigarettes.

Prof. Blot, who has no connection with any tobacco company, said that because hisresearch only dealt with mature adults, its results have no bearing on whether menthol makes it easier for a young, beginning smoker to tolerate tobacco.

The study was designed to discoer if the toxicity and resultant cancer risk of menthols is, in fact, greater than regular cigarettes. Blot summarized: “The answer is, no, they are not.” The other issue covered was the comparative addictiveness of menthol smokes for adult smokers. “Our data indicated there is no evidence that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting smoking.” Prof. Blot said that the results suggest that menthol smokers smoke fewer cigarettes than non-menthol users. He said that he is comfortable with making a general statement that menthol cigarettes are no more damaging than regular cigarettes, and may be slightly less risky.

Asked what the FDA’s policy should be, he was definite: “Our take on this is that smoking is bad. There is no doubt about that. We’ve known it for years and years. To single out mentholated cigarettes compared to other types of cigarettes may not be necessary.”

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