Cigarette smoking kills about 440,000 people in the United States each year, and contributes to many smoking-related illnesses. African Americans tend to have disproportionately higher rates of these smoking-related illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, even though they tend to smoke less than European Americans. Scientists have speculated that this disparity might be partially explained by the fact that African Americans are far more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes than European Americans.

In an article published in the September 25, 2006 Archives of Internal Medicine , researchers sought to determine whether menthol cigarette smokers have a harder time quitting and are more susceptible to the ill effects of cigarette smoke. They found that menthol cigarette smokers were significantly more likely to relapse after quitting, but that both types of cigarettes had similar effects on cardiovascular and pulmonary health.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 1535 healthy male and female smokers, aged 18 to 30 years. At the start of the study, and then two, five, seven, ten, and 15 years later, the study subjects underwent a physical examination and answered questions about their smoking status, attempts to quit smoking, and preference for menthol or non-menthol cigarettes. Sociodemographic, lifestyle, and health-related information was also collected at the start of the study and at each follow-up. The researchers measured the buildup of calcium in the participants’ arteries (a sign of coronary artery disease) at the fifteen-year follow-up, and they measured the participants’ lung function at the start of the study and then again after ten years.

Sixty-three percent of all study participants smoked menthol cigarettes, while 36% preferred non-menthol cigarettes. However, 89% of African Americans smoked menthol cigarettes, compared to 29% of European Americans. Menthol cigarette smokers were significantly more likely to relapse after quitting than non-menthol cigarette smokers. There was no significant difference in calcium buildup in the arteries or decline in lung function between menthol and non-menthol cigarette smokers.

How Does This Affect You?

This study found that menthol cigarette smokers were more likely to relapse after quitting, but that the effects of smoking on heart health and lung function were unrelated to menthol preference. The researchers speculate that the higher rates of smoking related complications in African Americans may be do, at least in part, due to the more persistent smoking habits of those favoring mentholated cigarettes.

Whether you smoke menthol or non-menthol cigarettes, cigarette smoking is bad for your health. If you smoke, your focus should be on quitting, not trying to find a cigarette that is “less bad” for you. None exists, and it is unclear from this study whether or not switching from a menthol to a non-menthol brand makes it easier to quit for good. Talk to your physician about smoking cessation programs, nicotine replacement therapy, or other strategies that may help you to quit.