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Menthol Cigarettes Have Lingering Effect

A Study In Women Finds The By-Product of Nicotine Stays In The Body Longer

Dec 26, 2002 | HealthScout

The chemical by-products of nicotine linger longer in women who smoke menthol cigarettes, an Ohio State University study has found.

The finding is not a health issue, because the product that lingers in the body is not a known carcinogen, say researchers. However, it is important for research purposes to shed light on what causes tobacco by-products to stay in the body.

Previous research has suggested that ethnicity could be a cause for cotinine, the major breakdown product of nicotine, to stay in the body longer because blacks consistently register higher cotinine levels than white smokers, says study author Karen Ahijevych. Blacks also smoke more menthol cigarettes than do whites; previous research has shown that at least two out of three black smokers smoke menthols compared to only one in four white smokers.

"While we haven't totally ruled out ethnicity, African-Americans in general smoke more menthol cigarettes than whites," says Ahijevych, an associate professor of nursing at Ohio State.

The results of her study appear in the December issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

"This is really a measurement issue. We use cotinine levels as a confirmation, as a backup to what people tell us," says Harry Feldman, a statistician who has studied the effects of tobacco.

"It's interesting, though, to hear that another thing that has been imputed to ethnicity is chemical," he says.

In the study of 32 black and white women who had smoked an average of a pack of cigarettes daily for approximately 15 years, Ahijevych's team had the participants, whose average age was 32, stay in a research center for seven days. Using blood tests, the researchers measured cotinine levels after an average day of smoking and then every eight hours during six days of smoking abstinence.

Ahijevych found the amount of time it took for cotinine to clear from the body was longer among blacks who smoked menthol cigarettes, among women who had fewer years of alcohol use, and among those had a greater lean body mass, which was body mass minus the fat tissue.

Yet when researchers compared the cotinine levels among black and white menthol cigarette smokers, the significant differences between white and black smokers disappeared, suggesting that cigarette preference rather than ethnicity was the cause for lingering cotinine levels.

Why menthol cigarettes?

"It could be increased exposure to tobacco, because puff volume is significantly larger among menthol smokers," says Ahijevych.

The reason for that, she says, could be that the menthol stimulates cold receptors in the airways, which could potentially be less irritating to smokers.

Ahijevych says the study results will help researchers who work in smoking cessation programs to better measure how long it has been since someone has stopped smoking.

"In any reliable research, testing cotinine levels is a way to confirm people's reports," she says. "You need to be careful in evaluating when smoking stops. This is one little piece in our understanding of a complex issue."

Ahijevych also says that the time it took for cotinine to clear out of the body varied among the women, and that the study results indicated that at least seven days of abstinence might be necessary to use cotinine levels as a reliable indicator of whether a person has stopped smoking.

For the public, this research shouldn't be taken as a sign to switch from menthol to non-menthol cigarettes, Ahijevych says.

"That would be counterproductive. The message is to quit smoking."


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