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Why menthols may make it harder for black smokers to quit

A pile of broken cigarettes on a table.

Aug. 1, 2019—Some African Americans may find it harder to quit smoking than their white peers—and for a surprising reason: the preferred flavor of their cigarette.

Since the 1940s, tobacco companies have targeted menthols to African Americans. They were marketed heavily on billboards in black communities and in African American magazines. And it worked. The most popular brands used by black smokers today are all menthols, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Menthol flavoring concerns health experts because it numbs the airways, making cigarette smoke easier to breathe. That may appeal more to new smokers. But does it also make menthols harder to quit? To answer that question, researchers combed through data from 19 previous studies.

What they found

Among African Americans, menthol smokers were 12% less likely to quit successfully than non-menthol smokers. But that didn't hold true for white menthol smokers.

Researchers had theorized that the menthol flavoring might add to nicotine's rewarding effects. But in that case, they would have expected to see people of all ethnicities struggle more to quit menthols. The fact that they didn't surprised researchers. And it suggests that the difficulty may have more to do with marketing than with menthol itself.

The menthol myth

Because menthols are easier to inhale, some smokers may believe they're also safer than non-flavored cigarettes, researchers said. That's untrue. Menthols are at least as dangerous as non-menthols. But that myth—and the ongoing influence of tobacco marketing to African Americans—may combine to make it harder for black smokers to quit successfully.

Researchers concluded that a ban on menthol flavoring in cigarettes might make a significant dent in smoking rates among African Americans.

The research appeared in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Ready to kick the habit for good? Check out these resources to help you quit.

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