STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And Im Steve Inskeep. Today in Your Health, well report on two hazardous habits, one is binge drinking among teenagers and we'll have more on that in a moment. First, we'll look at one of the challenges facing people who want to quit smoking. Millions of Americans say they have tried to quit and can't. And according to some researchers, people who smoke menthol cigarettes may have a harder time than most.
NPRs Brenda Wilson reports.
BRENDA WILSON: All tobacco is addictive, but researcher Jonathan Foulds suspects that menthol makes tobacco more addictive. Foulds is director of the Tobacco Dependence Program and the School of Public Health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey.
Among almost 1,700 people enrolled in the universitys smoking cessation program, those who smoked menthols had a harder time quitting.
Dr. JONATHAN FOULDS (Director, Tobacco Dependence Program, University of Medicine and Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey): Particularly for African-Americans and Latinos, if they tried to quit smoking and theyre a menthol smoker, it seems like their quit rate was less.
WILSON: You would think, Foulds says, that the cost of smoking, particularly in the northeastern United States, would be enough to help people in these hard times break the habit.
Dr. FOULDS: If youve been used to smoking 30 regular cigarettes a day and they used to be $2.50 and you could afford that, no problem. But now theyre $8, like they are in New Jersey or $11, as they are in Manhattan, you just can't afford to smoke, especially in this economy.
WILSON: Foulds says many studies have shown that menthol smokers get by with fewer cigarettes each day, but smoking less doesnt translate into quitting. Foulds says the body is addicted to a certain level of nicotine, not a certain number of cigarettes.
Dr. FOULDS: So your body tries to inhale more smoke per cigarette to get the usual dose of nicotine. With regular cigarettes, it becomes harsh because nicotine and the toxins in the smoke are harsh on your throat.
WILSON: A menthol cigarette, Foulds says, helps the poison go down smoother.
Dr. FOULDS: Menthol is a cooling agent that stimulates the cold receptors and it means that you're able to more easily inhale more smoke per cigarette. And we believe that that higher dose of nicotine from a cigarette is a more addictive way of smoking.
WILSON: But not all researchers agree that menthol makes it harder to quit. The largest manufacturer of menthol cigarettes, Lorillard, the maker of Newport cigarettes, points out the work of Dr. Andrew Hyland at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. Hyland followed 13,000 smokers for five years. He found that low-income and less-educated people had a hard time quitting, but he saw no difference in menthol and regular cigarette smokers.
Dr. ANDREW HYLAND (Roswell Park Cancer Institute): If you look at how deeply people inhale - how much smoke they bring into their lungs - some studies show that it is easier, but other studies show not. To me, that means maybe theres something going on, but its probably not a huge deal. The menthol it's a tool. Its a marketing tool. Once theyre hooked on the product, with the nicotine, that's when they're in trouble.
WILSON: Whether menthol increases dependence on tobacco or not, Hyland agrees that menthols role in smoking is not entirely neutral. Though there are many more white Americans who smoke menthols, among African-Americans who smoke the majority smoke menthols.
56-year-old Larry Harrison started smoking menthols 38 years ago.
Mr. LARRY HARRISON: Fourteen days clean.
WILSON: Fourteen days. Thats not very long.
Mr. HARRISON: Yes, it is. When you've been smoking for 38 years, one day is a long time without a cigarette.
WILSON: When he started, the big menthol brand was Kool.
Mr. HARRISON: When you're trying to be somebody you aint the word cool might, you know, kick in, say, man, Im cool, so I smoke Kool, right? I don't know why I started, just everybody else was smoking and Kool was the popular cigarette.
WILSON: In the late 1950s, African-Americans were no more likely to smoke menthol than white Americans. Historical documents have shown that was changed by a major campaign of the tobacco industry, targeting the African-American community.
Brenda Wilson, NPR News.