Alive with Pleasure
A minty habit can be hard to break. Menthol is to blame.
My name is Erica, and I was once addicted to menthol. Specifically, I was hooked on Halls mentholated cough drops. When I was in high school and college, it was not unusual for me to go through a bag of cough drops a day. I didn't think of it as addiction at the time. In fact, I'd pretty much forgotten about my former habit until this past year, when I found out that the FDA is considering banning menthol in cigarettes. Some public health advocates have argued that menthol may be addictive on its own, or, at the very least, that it makes quitting smoking more difficult, and their evidence is pretty convincing.
Menthol may not be as habit-forming as nicotine or even caffeine, but it is a drug nonetheless — one that the FDA regulates when it's used as an ingredient in cough drops, mouthwash, and other consumer products. And studies have shown that the cool, fresh sensation we associate with menthol is a physical phenomenon, achieved by blocking specific cold-sensing receptors in the mouth and nose. There's even some evidence that menthol can act as a local anesthetic.
As I sifted through the scientific literature online, I began to see my past relationship with cough drops in a new light. I remembered how I used to savor the first few seconds of a new cough drop, when the menthol flavor was the most intense. I would inhale deeply to maximize the cooling effects on my sinuses, then quickly crunch through the rest so I could start the experience over (and over). I was like a jacked up version of the people on those old York Peppermint Patty commercials, always looking for my next hit of fictional Arctic air. Suddenly, the idea of menthol addiction didn't sound so ridiculous.
Taste researchers often depict menthol as the opposite of hot pepper. Both flavors are said to appeal to thrill-seekers. Experts say the tingling, numbing sensation from menthol is akin to the endorphin rush spice lovers get from eating hot peppers. Some of the attraction may be manufactured — note the number of mint-flavored products labeled "extreme" or "icy cold" next time you're at the drug store — but there is clearly a biological component as well. Scientists at Cornell University's Taste Science Laboratory use an affinity for strong peppermint, which contains menthol, to predict whether a person will like other strong flavors. Perhaps this explains my fondness for ginger beer and horseradish, I wondered as I perused the lab's website.
Or maybe I was just a cold junkie. Menthol's cooling effects have made it a popular medicine ingredient since ancient times. Not surprisingly, menthol was mainly used as a topical pain reliever, but it has also been employed as a treatment for rheumatism and chest congestion. Indeed, menthol cigarettes were initially marketed as a tobacco alternative for smokers with a sore throat. Advertisements for the now-defunct Spud menthol brand, first introduced in the 1920s, promised to keep smokers' tongues and throats in their "natural moist-cool state" so they could "smoke the whole pack, one after another." There is, of course, little evidence that menthol cures a sore throat or any other medical condition. By the 1950s, the ad campaigns for menthols had shifted to focus on flavor, but public health studies suggest that even today many menthol smokers believe that menthol cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes.
I can't be sure if I was attracted to menthol's medicinal qualities, but I do know they're why I stopped using it. It turns out a lot of people hate the smell of menthol, largely because it reminds them of medicine. What I found aromatic and invigorating, others found acerbic and clinical. I learned not to indulge in my vice in class lest someone groan, "Ugh, it smells like cough drops in here." Who knew Bengay breath was a turn-off? On the other hand, there was probably a perverse part of me that enjoyed offending everyone with my stinky cough drops the way some people delight in the disgusted looks they get when they order pizza with anchovies. I liked having a weird habit; I just didn't want anyone else to know about it.
My parents' house became the only place where I could devour cough drops in peace. It helped that my mom shared my enthusiasm for menthol. Sometimes I would come home from college to find the miscellaneous drawer in the kitchen stuffed with cough drops. My dad and siblings were mostly tolerant. Still, every now and then one of them would comment on the smell or point out how strange they thought it was that I ate cough drops like candy, and I got tired of the negative attention. It was time to quit.
Unfortunately, quitting menthol is not as easy as one might think. There are no withdrawal symptoms like those you'd have after quitting caffeine, but I did get cravings, and regular mints, even "curiously strong" Altoids, just didn't cut it. I would have to eat an entire handful of peppermints to approximate the sensation I used to get from one cough drop, and even then it wasn't the same. The tingling bite was there, but the cooling sensation was not. I now know this is because menthol, although present in peppermint, needs to be extracted from mint to produce the physical cooling effects I got from cough drops. Eventually, I gave up on mints all together. To this day, when asked to choose between mint and another flavor, I'll pick the other flavor every time.
I can only imagine how difficult it is for people who smoke or chew mentholated tobacco to downgrade to mints or gum. Nicotine is addictive enough without adding menthol to the mix. Some reports have suggested that menthol may interact with nicotine chemically to make it even more addictive. Meanwhile, in a recent survey, albeit one commissioned by the company that makes Nicorette, nearly 40 percent of the roughly 300 menthol smokers questioned said that menthol was the only reason they smoke. It's these kinds of findings that make it hard for me to believe that menthol is merely a taste additive, as the tobacco companies have been claiming.
It's still hard for me to take my menthol habit very seriously even though it lasted several years. I think the image I have of my younger self scarfing down cough drops is just too silly. Fittingly, I recently came across a Facebook page someone started for people addicted to Halls cough drops. As I read through the long list of comments, which included such gems as, "I ask my husband to buy them for me instead of flowers," and "went thru 2 bags yesterday while driving — surprised even me!" I couldn't help but smile. • 28 April 2011
Erica Westly is a freelance science writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Article photo via Brandi Korte / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0