The cooling and minty flavor of menthol in cigarettes has been hypothesized to mask the harshness of inhaled cigarette smoke, contributing to menthol’s appeal and subjective reinforcement and linking menthol use to smoking initiation, progression, nicotine dependence, and difficulty quitting. This study examined differences between menthol and non-menthol smokers on behavioral economic indices of reinforcing efficacy (i.e., demand) and subjective response to smoking (i.e., satisfaction, reward, “throat hit,” aversion) and the association between measurements of reinforcement and subjective response.
600 current adult smokers were recruited from an online smoking cessation program. Following website enrollment, individuals completed a self-report measurement of subjective response to smoking (reward, satisfaction, aversion, “throat hit”), and a modified cigarette purchase task (CPT) to assess behavioral economic cigarette demand.
In bivariate and adjusted ANOVA models, menthol smokers reported greater subjective reward, satisfaction, and positive sensations in the throat (“throat hit”) from smoking compared to non-menthol smokers; and those outcomes were also correlated with greater nicotine dependence and lower likelihood of a past-year quit attempt. Although cigarette demand was associated with smoking level, subjective smoking reward, and nicotine dependence, there were no differences in smoking demand between menthol vs. non-menthol smokers.
The pleasurable aspects of menthol vs non-menthol smoking may be a mechanism linking it to greater nicotine dependence and difficulty quitting. A menthol ban could decrease population-level cigarette consumption by restricting smokers’ access to a highly rewarding cigarette flavoring.