Menthol, the minty and cooling natural product in peppermint, is a highly popular flavor in tobacco products. More than 30 percent of smokers in the United States smoke menthol cigarettes, and most beginning smokers prefer menthols. Chewing tobacco, snuff and snus also come in highly popular mentholated varieties.
A new study from Dr. Sven-Eric Jordt’s Chemical Sensing, Pain and Inflammation Research Laboratory at Duke Anesthesiology reveals that menthol masks the bad taste of nicotine. Tobacco by itself has a rather unpleasant burnt and bitter taste. This is partially due to nicotine in tobacco that is bitter and irritating, causing a burning and pungent sensation. The manuscript titled, “Menthol decreases oral nicotine aversion in C57BL/6 mice through a TRPM8-dependent mechanism” is published in the October 2016 issue of the journal Tobacco Control.
“Contributing to Duke Anesthesiology’s pain research efforts, our lab has studied the cooling and soothing effects of menthol that is widely used for topical pain treatment in pain creams and patches,” says Dr. Jordt. “We were intrigued whether menthol would also suppress the irritating effects of nicotine.”
To examine menthol’s effects, Dr. Jordt’s lab scientists presented mice with a choice of water with nicotine or water containing both nicotine and menthol. The mice strongly preferred the mentholated nicotine and did so repeatedly over days. Mice share their aversion to nicotine with humans and also perceive menthol as soothing and cooling, sensing menthol with specific temperature-sensing nerves in the mouth.
“Menthol is not only a pleasant flavor, but has potent sensory effects that make it easier to consume nicotine,” says Dr. Jordt, associate professor in anesthesiology and faculty member of Duke Anesthesiology’s Center for Translational Pain Medicine. “We hope our findings will inform regulatory policies to curtail tobacco use and prevent children from becoming new tobacco consumers.” The study was a collaboration with Dr. Marina Picciotto’s laboratory of the Yale Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science in the Department of Psychiatry, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Food and Drug Administration.