California recently joined four other states in ending the sale of menthol cigarettes. Let’s hope this momentum grows. It’s time to recognize that menthol flavoring of tobacco is part of a deadly, decades-long tobacco industry effort to attract Black customers and keep them hooked. An effort that, due to aggressive predatory marketing, has disproportionately put Black lives at risk.
Tobacco companies will of course argue differently. They want you to think they’re doing everything they can to protect communities of color. Yet the data reveal otherwise. Today, 85 percent of Black American smokers use menthol cigarettes compared to 29 percent of white smokers.
The tobacco industry’s strategy of making donations to athletics, arts, and education is carefully designed to cover up a promotion of products known to attract Black smokers. They have seized the precarious state of Black-owned news and entertainment enterprises to accomplish an exchange of badly needed advertising revenue for the promotion of their lethal products. Tobacco even supported entities at the forefront of civil rights, also often hardpressed for resources, effectively neutralizing critical voices.
But here’s the truth: cigarettes, menthol in particular, each year kill 45,000 Black people, a population that is already burdened disproportionately by heart disease and other conditions that now also put them at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
Big Tobacco continued these marketing practices unchecked for decades, and eventually received a rubber stamp from the federal agency that is supposed to protect everyone’s health. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), under intense industry pressure, exempted menthol cigarettes from its ban on the sale of flavored cigarettes. This concession further enabled the tobacco industry to ramp up its already aggressive marketing tactics to target Black Americans on their deadly products.
The tobacco industry relies on a host of creative and pernicious marketing ploys to get Black children — 7 of 10 Black youth smokers smoke menthol — and adults hooked to menthol cigarettes. From lowering the price of cigarettes to advertising at checkout counters, the industry markets more aggressively to Black neighborhoods. Menthol cigarettes are often marketed as an “easier” and “safer” cigarette for first-time smokers. Advertisements claim that the menthol causes less irritation to the throat, and the cooling effect lessens the harshness of the tobacco, making it more appealing. Consequently, menthol cigarettes have been proven to be more addictive.
By racially segmenting the market — a strategy that amounts to racial profiling — they made menthol a marker of racial identification. There is a misconception that Black people prefer menthol. Not so. This is a result of racist marketing. There are more tobacco retailers in Black neighborhoods compared to white communities, making it easier to prominently advertise their products and target their deals at the register.
That menthol flavoring has been racialized is now also used by some to argue that regulation is paternalistic and limiting Black people’s choices. This is perverse logic. Smoking kills. Concerns have also been raised that the police may use “suspicion” of possession of menthol cigarettes as a pretext for stops and frisks, exposing Blacks to potential abusive policing, an equally unacceptable threat to Black lives.
As tens of thousands of Black men and women lose their lives to COVID-19 and chronic illnesses related to tobacco use, it’s never been more urgent for the United States to protect Black lungs. Unless we act now to remove menthol cigarettes from the shelves, they will be responsible for getting 1.6 million of today’s Black youth hooked on cigarettes in their lifetime — 500,000 of whom will die prematurely from tobacco-related disease. Think of what this means not only in terms of loss of life but of potential and promise.
Policymakers should stop taking donations from the tobacco industry and start putting Black lungs first. It’s time for all leaders — and Black leadership is especially needed — to make Big Tobacco feel the heat. Tougher policies and stronger regulations are crucial to promote health equity and safeguard communities of color against the tobacco industry’s agenda and deceptive marketing.
Tobacco use is a public health crisis. But the persistent targeting of Black Americans by the tobacco industry is a crisis of racial injustice, itself a public health crisis. If we’re serious about addressing inequities, it’s time for the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes and remove them from the marketplace once and for all.
Sandra Mullin is senior vice president for policy, advocacy and communication at the global health organization Vital Strategies, a partner in STOP, a tobacco industry watchdog.
Mary T. Bassett directs the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and previously served as New York City’s health commissioner. Follow: @DrMaryTBassett