Menthol
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Menthol

Menthol is a natural compound found in several plants of the mint family e.g. the peppermint, cornmint, and spearmint herbs. When consumed it imparts a minty taste and smell, and has a characteristic cooling effect.

General uses

Menthol is also produced synthetically for commercial use, and is widely used in the food, flavour, oral hygiene, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries. The tobacco industry is one of the main users of menthol.

Reported tobacco industry uses

Menthol is one of the most commonly used additives in the tobacco industry. It has been used in tobacco products since the 1920s to suppress the harshness of smoke and as a soothing alternative for smokers suffering from colds. Menthol is the only type of tobacco additive that is sold as a particular type of cigarette i.e. ‘Menthol cigarettes’. Menthol is added to cigarettes to provide a distinctive (brand-specific) mint flavour to the inhaled smoke. The menthol is added to several parts of the cigarette: either directly to the tobacco, the inner foil of the cigarette packet, the filter paper, or more recently as a crushable capsule inside the filter for a stronger effect.

The amount of menthol added to the cigarette depends on whether it is being produced as a “menthol” cigarette.  Mentholated cigarettes contain menthol at levels that are up to 0.45% of the total weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette (although levels up to 2% are also reported). Non-mentholated cigarettes can contain menthol at much lower levels that make up between 0.01 to 0.03% of the total weight of tobacco.

Harmful health effects

Menthol is generally regarded as safe for use in food and cosmetics. However, this does not suggest it is safe when inhaled from smoking cigarettes. Although studies show that when a mentholated cigarette is burnt, almost all of the menthol is released into the smoke unchanged, a small amount (0.5%) does burn and can form compounds such as benzo(a)pyrene and benzene. These chemicals have been classed as human cancer-causing agents by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a leading expert cancer organisation).

Menthol numbs the throat and increases the smoothness of the smoke, which masks the harsh effects of cigarette smoke and thereby makes it easier to smoke. Menthol cigarette smokers also tend to inhale more deeply for the cooling effect. These effects (together with the minty taste) particularly appeals to young people as studies have shown that menthol cigarettes are commonly used in adolescents and is often their first cigarette brand of choice.

Tobacco manufacturers recognise that the cooling effect of menthol makes for a pleasurable smoking experience and, therefore, also add menthol to the tobacco used in non-menthol (i.e. regular) cigarettes. This provides a smoother and less harsh smoke without the mint taste. Other tobacco additives used for this purpose include peppermint, spearmint, thyme and eucalyptus oils, and the chemical methyl salicylate. Consequently, by adding menthol, tobacco manufacturers increase the attractiveness and appeal of cigarettes.

The sensory experience from smoking menthol cigarettes can make it difficult to stop as the pleasurable taste, odour, and cooling effects may reinforce the smoking habit. Indeed, menthol’s numbing effects on the lungs may allow many smokers to inhale more deeply to get their nicotine fix.

Menthol’s use in medicinal products can also give smokers a false sense of safety.  Studies have shown that menthol cigarette smokers often have the wrong impression that the compound offers them some sort of health protection compared to non-menthol cigarettes. This can encourage continued consumption and helps sustain the smoking habit and thus greater exposure to the toxic substances in cigarette smoke.

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive menthol was written by the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). You can find the original in English on the RIVM website http://www.dkfz.de/de/tabakkontrolle  

This initiative has received funding from the European Union in the framework of the Health Programme.