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Carrington College Blog

Menthol in cigarettes desensitize airway receptors

November 16, 2014

Because of their minty taste, menthol cigarettes are considered appealing among younger smokers.While the dangers of smoking are undoubtedly well-known, menthol cigarettes often entice young smokers with their minty taste. But menthol acts as more than a flavoring; it has a pharmacologic impact.

According to a new study from Georgetown University Medical Center, menthol combines with nicotine to desensitize receptors in lungs’ airways that are responsible for nicotine irritation.1

Many professionals turn to cigarettes to relieve work-related stress, and that ironically includes nurses and nursing assistants. In spite of their health-promoting occupations, those working in hospitals may succumb to the pressures of the demanding environment.

According to Scrubs Magazine, a nursing education publication, an estimated 540,000 nurses in the U.S. are smokers, totaling about 18 percent of nurses, which is the highest smoking rate among health care providers.2

Whether smokers or not, nurses shouldn’t be deceived by menthol flavoring.

“The issue may be that menthol in the presence of nicotine may reduce the irritation enough that a smoker can inhale more deeply, bringing not just nicotine but toxic smoke products farther into the lungs,” co-investigator Dr. Gerald Ahern, an associate professor of pharmacology at GUMC, said in a news release.1 “While beyond the scope of this study, it is possible that such deeper inhalation of menthol cigarettes, to the extent it occurs, increases the already substantial health harms from smoking.”

The dangerous myths of menthol

Menthol cigarettes are one of the few growing sectors of the tobacco industry.3

Menthol, a naturally occurring aromatic compound that can also be synthesized in labs, softens the harshness of tobacco smoke. It has cool, anti-itch and pain-relieving proprieties and is found in products such as throat lozenges. Because of this, certain young people often think menthol cigarettes are safer. In fact, in the 1950s, Kool used to advertise that connection – since menthol was good when you have a cold, menthol cigarettes aren’t that dangerous.4 That urban legend has long lingered, and it’s time to extinguish it.

“We know that a menthol cough drop soothes a scratchy, sore throat. The question we looked at is if and how it works when the irritant is nicotine,” study author Dr. Kenneth Kellar, a professor of pharmacology at GUMC, said in the news release. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2014, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington.1

The researchers said their study sheds light on how menthol affects the function of the Alpha-3 beta-4 nicotinic receptor (α3β4 receptor), which is among the most prevalent nicotinic acetylcholine receptors expressed in the peripheral nervous system. While α3β4 receptors are also found in the brain, scientists are not yet sure what effect menthol has on them, or whether they contribute to nicotine addiction.

Restrictions needed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering placing restrictions on menthol cigarettes, citing the the ingredient’s association with increased initiation and progression to regular smoking, increased dependence as well as reduced success in quitting smoking. The agency said that though mint-flavored cigarettes may be just as toxic as others, it was easier to start smoking them and more difficult to quit.

Students in medical assisting programs and other related studies should take note of the menthol-induced irritations, especially because menthol cigarettes have been rising in popularity among young people. According to a separate study conducted by the University of Buffalo, menthol cigarette use was far more common among 18-25 year olds than older persons.4

Furthermore, menthol cigarettes are more popular among African-American smokers, who have a higher incidence of lung cancer. An earlier study from the Depart of Health showed that about a quarter of white smokers choose menthol cigarettes, while more than 70 percent of African-American smokers use them.5 Those in nursing fields are tasked with eliminating the false sense of security presented by menthol cigarettes, not only for others, but for themselves as well.

While there are many theories as to why these well-educated employees begin to puff, stress is one of the most likely contributors to the addiction.

Students entering nursing careers should place their stress in check and develop good habits to ward off the chance of smoking cigarettes. Those who already smoke might consider counseling sessions and medication – it often takes more than willpower to quit. Empower yourself by establishing a plan, implementing all means of support you have available.

1Georgetown UniversityMedical Center. (2014, November 16). Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

2Buss, J. (2010, October 22). The irony of the nurse who smokes. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

3Menthol cigarettes ‘more harmful’ (2013, July 23). Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

​4Saldi, S. (2013, January 1). Study finds increased menthol cigarette use among young people. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

5The First Conference on Menthol Cigarettes: Setting the Research Agenda. (2013). Cancer Control.

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