Background: Menthol cigarettes, preferred by African American smokers, have been conjectured to be harder to quit and to contribute to the excess lung cancer burden among black men in the Unites States. However, data showing an association between smoking menthol cigarettes and increased lung cancer risk compared with smoking nonmenthol cigarettes are limited. The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering whether to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes in the United States.
Methods: We conducted a prospective study among 85,806 racially diverse adults enrolled in the Southern Community Cohort Study during March 2002 to September 2009 according to cigarette smoking status, with smokers classified by preference for menthol vs nonmenthol cigarettes. Among 12,373 smokers who responded to a follow-up questionnaire, we compared rates of quitting between menthol and nonmenthol smokers. In a nested case-control analysis of 440 incident lung cancer case patients and 2213 matched control subjects, using logistic regression modeling we computed odds ratios (ORs) and accompanying 95% confidence intervals (CIs) of lung cancer incidence, and applied Cox proportional hazards modeling to estimate hazard ratios (HRs) of lung cancer mortality, according to menthol preference.
Results: Among both blacks and whites, menthol smokers reported smoking fewer cigarettes per day; an average of 1.6 (95% CI = 1.3 to 2.0) fewer for blacks and 1.8 (95% CI = 1.3 to 2.3) fewer for whites, compared with nonmenthol smokers. During an average of 4.3 years of follow-up, 21% of participants smoking at baseline had quit, with menthol and nonmenthol smokers having equal odds of quitting (OR = 1.02, 95% CI = 0.89 to 1.16). A lower lung cancer incidence was noted in menthol vs nonmenthol smokers (for smokers of <10, 10-19, and ≥ 20 cigarettes per day, compared with never smokers, OR = 5.0 vs 10.3, 8.7 vs 12.9, and 12.2 vs 21.1, respectively). These trends were mirrored for lung cancer mortality. In multivariable analyses adjusted for pack-years of smoking, menthol cigarettes were associated with a lower lung cancer incidence (OR = 0.65, 95% CI = 0.47 to 0.90) and mortality (hazard ratio of mortality = 0.69, 95% CI = 0.49 to 0.95) than nonmenthol cigarettes.
Conclusions: The findings suggest that menthol cigarettes are no more, and perhaps less, harmful than nonmenthol cigarettes.