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FDA Study: Menthol Smokers Have Lower Lung Cancer Risk 

Jump to full article: Tobacco Truth (Brad Rodu blog), 2012-03-05


FDA Center for Tobacco Products scientist Brian Rostron has published a study finding "evidence of lower lung cancer mortality risk among menthol smokers compared with nonmenthol smokers at ages 50 and over in the U.S. population." His research is available online in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research (abstract here).

Dr. Rostron first examined the Cancer Control Supplement of the 1987 National Health Interview Survey. Of 6,073 current smokers, 1,417 reported that they smoked menthol cigarettes and 3,690 were nonmenthol smokers (the menthol preference for the other 966 smokers was undetermined). Using a computerized mortality file developed specifically for these survey participants, Dr. Rostron then determined how many smokers died from lung cancer over the next 20 years, through 2006. Comparisons were made using hazard ratios (HRs), which can be interpreted similarly to relative risks. . . .

Dr. Rostron's results were in agreement with two previous epidemiologic studies. The first, published last year by Vanderbilt University's William Blot and colleagues (abstract here), found that the incidence of lung cancer among menthol smokers was 65% of that among nonmenthol smokers (CI = 0.47 - 0.90).

The second study, published in 2003 by Steven Stellman at the American Health Foundation along with investigators at several other research institutions, also found that menthol smokers had lower lung cancer risk than nonmenthol smokers (abstract here). Dr. Stellman's conclusion that "Smokers of menthol flavored cigarettes were at no greater risk for lung cancer than were smokers of unflavored brands" was a gross understatement. . . .

In his new article, Dr. Rostron writes, “The reasons for [lower lung cancer risks among menthol smokers] are not clear at the present time.” There is little evidence that menthol smokers have higher quit rates than nonmenthol smokers. Dr. Rostron suggests that the mortality differences “may be due in part to differences in inhalation caused by product design and not necessarily to menthol itself.”

Does this mean that menthol cigarettes carry reduced risk? Dr. Rostron notes, “Smoking of any kind of cigarette is known to profoundly harm individual and population health…”, but he suggests that further research on menthol cigarettes “could potentially identify ways to decrease the individual risk of cigarettes.”

The importance of this newest research should not be underestimated. Last year, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg emphasized that “Science underlies everything we do at this agency…” (here). Dr. Rostron and the Center for Tobacco Products should be commended for producing this analysis. One hopes it will be used appropriately by the FDA in development of science-based tobacco regulation.

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