When I was in high school, my doctor diagnosed me with asthma. I suppose that it was helpful that I had an asthma attack while in the office. Up until that time, I just figured the symptoms I had were a symptom of LEO (low exercise output). Shortly after my diagnosis, I remember visiting my great-grandfather and taking a stroll around his neighborhood in Agawam, MA. On our walk, Grampa told me the most amazing story about his sister having asthma as a young girl. He claimed the doctors prescribed her mentholated cigarettes. Cigarettes! I was incredulous. I could not even fathom that a doctor would prescribe cigarettes. After all, my own doctor was very specific that I should never smoke, especially because I had asthma. Honestly, I was convinced that Grampa was trying to ‘pull my leg’.
Today, I must issue an apology, because it appears that asthma cigarettes really existed! I found proof in Dr. Batty’s Asthma Cigarettes (c. 1882)! These cigarettes were advertised as a treatment for a multitude of upper respiratory tract problems, including asthma, bronchial irritation, and the common head cold. Though I have no proof, I assume that these cigarettes contained menthol. Menthol is the same stuff you find in your medicated vaporizing chest rub. It has a very strong odor, but it certainly helps open those nasal passages, and we especially notice this with mentholated cough drops. This might explain why it helped with head colds or even improved bad breath. Although, I remain highly skeptical.
Menthol is an analgesic, which means that it provides pain relief. A pain component is present in nearly all of the conditions treated with these asthma cigarettes. Researchers also believe that menthol reduces airway reactivity and inflammation. According to a recent study, when added to a cigarette, it counters irritation in the lungs by calming sensory nerves. A reduction in irritation suppresses the urge to cough, which is definitely a symptom of asthma. In theory, it would relax the lungs. In fact, according to Gerard Ahern, an associate professor of pharmacology at Georgetown University, menthol “may reduce the irritation enough that a smoker can inhale more deeply, bringing not just nicotine but toxic smoke products farther into the lungs”. This obviously has current day implications, and I am certainly not suggesting that one should go and buy a pack of mentholated cigarettes. However, it is fascinating to look at the mechanisms that made this seem like an effective treatment at the time.
The Eclectic Data Hunter would like to state that, while autonomous individuals are entitled to make their own health decisions, she is firmly opposed to smoking.