Is cigarette choice genetic? Examining connections between race and a preference for menthol

2018

Challenge

The majority (80%) of African American smokers choose cigarettes flavored with menthol, compared to a minority (30%) of Caucasian American smokers. The addition of menthol flavoring to cigarettes may increase the chances of beginning to smoke in youth and decrease the likelihood of quitting later in life, leading to a disproportionate effect on specific ethnic groups. It was unknown whether the preference for menthol cigarettes had a genetic basis or was related to social or cultural factors.

Advance

IRP researchers, led by Dennis Drayna, Ph.D., performed an exome-wide association study to examine whether inherited variations in the genome contribute to a preference for menthol cigarettes. Menthol preference was found to be strongly associated with a variant, found only in people of African descent, in the gene MRGPRX4. In addition, the associated MRGPRX4 receptor, which may regulate pain and the sense of touch, was found to be altered by the menthol additive present in mentholated cigarettes. This alteration may create an anesthetic effect, suggesting menthol could have an effect beyond taste for those who possess the genetic variant.

Impact

With cigarette smoking remaining a leading a cause of death in the United states, any insight into the selection of these addictive tobacco products may help inform public health policy.

Publications

Kozlitina J, Risso D, Lansu K, Olsen RHJ, Sainz E, Luiselli D, Barik A, Frigerio-Domingues C, Pagani L, Wooding S, Kirchner T, Niaura R, Roth B, Drayna D. (2019). An African-specific haplotype in MRGPRX4 is associated with menthol cigarette smoking. PLOS Genetics. Feb 15;15(2):e1007916.