How menthol cigarettes became Black smokers’ favorite

SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Black Americans smoke menthol cigarettes at a higher rate than any other segment of smokers, according to the American Heart Association, thanks to targeted marketing and the influence of the popular culture.

The Biden administration announced last week that the FDA will move forward with rules to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, in a move celebrated by anti-tobacco advocates and welcomed by the NAACP.

But just how did the love of mentholated cigarettes begin in the Black community?

The answer is a combination of targeted marketing utilizing Black media outlets and partnerships with political figures and civic organizations that had an influence on the community.

Keith Wailoo, Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, says that the disproportionate use of menthol cigarettes among Black smokers is not an accident. Instead, it’s a marketing practice developed over decades.

Ebony and Jet Magazine were fixtures in Black households during the 1960s. Both publications covered African-American life, upward mobility, fashion, politics, and culture – they were staples that kept Black people around the country connected.

Within the glossy pages, there were ads featuring sexy, youthful, hip people (who looked like them) doing everyday things and loving the smooth taste of menthol while doing so.

“Handing out free samples, working with influencers in communities to both spread product, but also buying versions of silence from black media. Black newspapers that were dependent on advertising were reluctant to criticize these industry tactics, working with civil rights groups to defend the industry whenever their tactics were under attack,” Wailoo said.

Wailoo says those tactics and misinformation have worked in tandem to contribute to the disparity in menthol cigarette use among Black smokers.

“When you really look at those practices – practices like going to Black St. Louis in the late 1960s and trying to figure out who the people of influence were and giving out free samples because the industry understood and studied how influence was made in groups.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week released its long-awaited plan to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars Thursday, citing the toll on Black smokers and young people.

Opponents of the plan say that ending the sale of these products will only open up an underground market and increase police surveillance, citing the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd as reasons to continue the availability.

In an article published by The Hill, Reverend Al Sharpton said the ban could have unintended consequences on the community that are just as bad as the health implications of smoking.

“We have not said we opposed it, what we said was we’d like to see a study, a commission to study how they deal with the unintended consequences before they impose a ban,” Sharpton said. “How could anybody ignore interactions between police [and the Black community] if they’re increased because of a ban?” he continued. “If a policeman sees a guy standing on the corner smoking a Kool, he’s asking ‘Where did you get that from?’ and that will lead to interaction.”

In spite of that concern, Wailoo says the cost of maintaining the status quo is too great a risk to ignore.

“Of course, they’re taking a legitimate civil rights issue that is concerned with discrimination and racism, but they’re doing it in a way to help support the industry’s right to sell and to continue a form of exploitation that has been going on for contracts,” Wailoo said. “And sadly, this is a familiar playbook from the history of the industry and how it wins friends in order to maintain its markets. And the thing I’d say about this argument is that it’s wrong. It’s wrong for a particular tragic reason.”

When the tobacco industry settled a major lawsuit in the 1990s, the industry’s massive database became public and anyone with an interest had access to the marketing tactics that kept tobacco companies raking in money.

“When you see the kinds of surreptitious tactics that were used to build and sustain markets, you start to see that the world of markets and the private sector and the creation of consumer behaviors are a social justice issue when the long-term is impact so detrimental to the health of communities,” Wailoo said.

Video footage courtesy of Truth Initiative

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