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Menthol Killed a Generation of Black Smokers. It’s Still Not Banned

This post was originally published on Word In Black.

By: Jennifer Porter Gore

Ethan B. had his first cigarette at age 10. Eight years later, after enlisting in the Army, he started smoking menthol cigarettes because the ads for them made them seem refreshing — and the men who smoked them looked smooth and sophisticated.

“I wanted to look cool and be cool,” Ethan, now 59, says in the video. That image went up in smoke when he had his first stroke at age 56.

Angie P., 62, smoked menthols for 26 years, but decided to quit when she learned Big Tobacco made big profits selling to people like her. “Tobacco companies target people like me with their menthol cigarette marketing,” she says.

The two former smokers, both of whom are Black, are part of a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anti-smoking ad campaign, “Tips from Former Smokers,” launched in February. The videos show former smokers talking about the dangers of  cigarettes, and giving advice on how to kick the habit.

What’s noteworthy about the campaign, however, is that the subjects in six of the seven new ads talk explicitly about menthol cigarettes. And it launches amid concerns that — after years of discussions and stalled plans — the Food and Drug Administration has yet to ban sales of menthol cigarettes outright.

For years, the Food and Drug Administration has been working to eliminate menthol flavoring in tobacco, a ban that could save an estimated 300,000 to 650,000 smoking-related deaths over several decades. Most of those preventable deaths, experts say, would be among Black Americans, who smoke menthol cigarettes at a disproportionately high rate.

After a 2009 law gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, the agency banned every cigarette flavor except menthol. Studies have shown the additive’s cooling effect makes it easier to inhale smoke but harder to quit smoking.

Civil rights organizations and community leaders — including the NAACP, members of Congress, mayors of major cities, former U.S. surgeons general, and anti-smoking advocates — have urged the White House to stop the delays and end menthol cigarette sales and flavored cigars.

“The ban on menthol cigarettes has been controversial and some have said that it was racist to look to ban menthol cigarettes while some have said it was racist not to ban menthol cigarettes,” says Patrick Reynolds, CEO of the nonprofit Tobacco Free Earth. “I’m on the side that says it’s racist not to ban menthol cigarettes.”

The first proposed rules to end menthol cigarette and flavored cigar sales in 2022 and reissued the proposal early last year. But intense lobbying by the deep-pocketed tobacco industry — and competing White House priorities — resulted in repeated delays.

Meanwhile, industry giants like Philip Morris USA and Altria continue selling the product, targeting its sales to Black communities, including children and teens.

Reynolds, the grandson of tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds, says it’s clear that big tobacco “has targeted African Americans.”

“They know that most of them prefer menthol cigarettes and they have targeted them in their ads and in their communities,” says Patrick. “It’s unconscionable and we advocate and support the ban on menthol cigarettes.”

In 2021, menthol cigarettes accounted for 37% of all U.S. cigarette sales, according to the CDC. While around 12% of Black adults smoke cigarettes, more than 80% of them choose menthol cigarettes. Only 29% of all white smokers choose menthol cigarettes.

But Big Tobacco argues that banning menthol cigarettes discriminates against Black smokers, and warned President Joe Biden — already on shaky ground with Black voters — would do more damage if menthol cigarettes disappeared.

In 2022, when the FDA proposed banning menthol, Altria, one of the industry’s largest manufacturers, issued a statement disputing the dangers of menthol cigarettes.

“The health risks for menthol cigarettes are not different from the health risks for non-menthol cigarettes. And there is no evidence to suggest that flavored cigars are more harmful than non-flavored cigars,” Altria said.

The tobacco industry’s recruiting of Black menthol smokers began in the 1950s, with TV and magazine ads featuring Black models and celebrities. In the 1970s and 80s, Big Tobacco scaled up its efforts, putting billboards featuring young Black actors and musicians in Black neighborhoods.

Research has shown menthol products get more shelf space in stores that have large numbers of Black customers, and stores located near schools with more Black students have been more likely to promote menthol cigarette sales through ads and discounts. Such practices helped Big Tobacco entice millions of young people to start smoking and generated billions of dollars in profits.

Reynolds says the tobacco industry understands that recruiting young smokers is a sound business strategy.

“We have concrete evidence that 90% of all smokers begin smoking and become addicted before age 19,” says Reynolds.

Although the menthol ban is still in limbo, the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month introduced a “framework” of goals and strategies “to support and accelerate smoking cessation and reduce smoking- and cessation-related disparities.”

The agency says the focus is on supporting efforts to reduce the use of cigarettes, cigars, little cigars, and cigarillos. But the framework doesn’t ban menthols outright.

Yolonda C. Richardson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement that the HHS framework is important, but doesn’t go far enough.

To fully address these disparities, “we must also end the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing of menthol cigarettes to Black and other communities,” she said.

“We urge the Administration to move forward both in issuing the final rules to eliminate menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars and in expanding the availability and promotion of smoking cessation treatments,” Richardson said.

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