The biological impact of menthol on tobacco dependence

Robert J. Wickham, Elizabethtown College


In the 1920s, tobacco companies created a marketing campaign for what would one day be their most profitable series of products: Mentholated tobacco cigarettes. Menthol provides the smoker with a pleasant mint flavor in addition to a cooling sensation of the mouth, throat, and lungs, giving relief from the painful irritation caused by tobacco smoke. Promising a healthier cigarette using pictures of doctors in white coats and even cartoon penguins, tobacco companies promoted these cigarettes to young, beginner smokers and those with respiratory health concerns. Today, smoking tobacco cigarettes causes one in five US Americans to die prematurely, crowning it as the leading cause of preventable death. In contrast to the dubious health claims by tobacco companies, mentholated cigarettes are in fact more addictive. Smokers of mentholated cigarettes have lower successful quit rates and in some cases are resistant to both behavioral and pharmacological treatment strategies. There is now considerable evidence, especially in the last 5 years, that suggest menthol might influence the addictive potential of nicotine-containing tobacco products via biological mechanisms. First, menthol alters the expression, stoichiometry, and function of nicotinic receptors. Second, menthol's chemosensory properties operate to mask aversive properties of using tobacco products. Third, menthol's chemosensory properties aid in serving as a conditioned cue that can both enhance nicotine intake and drive relapse. Fourth, menthol alters nicotine metabolism, increasing its bioavailability. This review discusses emerging evidence for these mechanisms, with an emphasis on preclinical findings that may shed light on why menthol smokers exhibit greater dependence.