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If additional regulations or even a ban on menthol cigarettes follow a U.S. Food and Drug Administration report released last week, it will be thanks in small part to a group of researchers at the Kansas University Medical Center.
The FDA last week released a review of scientific research on the mint-flavored cigarettes, also announcing that it was accepting public comments about possible new regulations.
Together, the studies surveyed found that people who smoke menthol cigarettes find it easier to get addicted and tougher to quit, and one study cited was conducted by KU Med Center researchers in 2007.
In the first study to examine how menthol was related to smoking cessation among light smokers in particular, they worked with University of Minnesota researchers and found that even among people who smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes per day, people who smoke menthol cigarettes find it more difficult to quit.
“This is a study that we are really passionate about,” said Babalola Faseru, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and public health at the Med Center and one of the researchers who helped with the 2007 study.
They focused on a group of about 750 black Americans who were light smokers, using data from a clinical trial conducted in the Kansas City area.
Faseru and about 10 other KU Med Center researchers who study smoking cessation frequently focus on black smokers, he said. Research has shown that blacks smoke menthol cigarettes at much higher rates than other groups. At the same time, Faseru said, black smokers tend to smoke fewer cigarettes each day while also suffering a higher rate of smoking-related health problems.
In the population the KU researchers studied, about 11 percent of menthol smokers were able to quit smoking for a period of 26 weeks, compared with about 19 percent of nonmenthol smokers.
Though the FDA did not announce what steps might follow last week’s report, Faseru was clear about what he’d recommend: a ban on menthol cigarettes.
He pointed to a ban on other cigarette flavors passed by Congress in 2009.
“I believe that menthol should not be made an exception when it comes to regulation of tobacco,” Faseru said.
Menthol in cigarettes has big public-health implications, he said, because it’s also especially popular among young smokers, leading him to believe it’s a big part of a tobacco industry effort to market to younger potential smokers.
“If we don’t do anything about it, then the youth will continue to pick up the habits,” Faseru said.
Tobacco industry leaders have argued that menthol cigarettes are no more harmful than others and should not be regulated differently.
Faseru said it’s true that research hasn’t concluded that menthol itself makes a cigarette more carcinogenic. But, he says, research does suggest it prompts more people to begin smoking and makes them less likely to stop.
A ban, he said, would especially affect cancer-related deaths among women, who prefer menthol cigarettes in greater numbers than men. Lung cancer, not breast cancer, is actually the greatest cause of cancer deaths in women, Faseru noted.
Faseru encouraged people who would support a ban or additional regulations on menthol cigarettes to express that support to the FDA during its 60-day comment period, as tobacco companies would likely use that time to discourage such a move.
“I think at the end of the day, if you have people that are passionate about this, we will be able to move forward with regulation that is necessary for menthol in cigarettes,” Faseru said.