The investigation is based on a preliminary scientific evaluation of possible public health effects of menthol cigarettes. Menthol is a flavor additive widely used in consumer and medicinal products; however, its use in tobacco products is not currently regulated. It has a minty taste and aroma, and may have cooling or painkilling properties which can reduce the irritation and harshness of smoking when used in cigarettes.
The FDA states that over 40% of young smokers and 30% of all adult smokers in the US use mint-flavored cigarettes. Notably, the American Heart Association reports that 1,200 Americans die of tobacco-related illnesses every year, with a high proportion of those deaths caused by menthol cigarettes.
Research on the addictive nature of menthol cigarettes, reported in the journal Frontiers, shows that menthol can trigger nicotine cravings. Specifically, data from researchers at George Mason University in Virginia, show that menthol may directly promote nicotine craving because it binds to a specific nicotine receptor in the nerve cells called the a7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, essentially altering the receptor's response to nicotine.
The research also shows that menthol can trigger pleasure centers in the brain, thereby initiating a long-term effect associated with smoking menthol cigarettes by rewarding smoking and creating addition. These findings are backed up by a recent FDA report on the subject.