Newports, Kools, Camels. Menthol cigarette brands like these have gone unregulated for over a decade, even as other flavored cigarettes have been banned from the market for their addictive qualities. In turn, Black folks — who were targeted by tobacco companies to use menthol products — suffer from cigarette addiction and premature death at staggering rates. 

But that could change if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moves forward with it’s proposal to ban menthol cigarettes for good

The potential ban comes after years of research revealing the effects of menthol — a mint-derived flavor additive that can be natural or synthetic — on smokers. According to the FDA, menthol makes cigarettes more appealing due to its minty taste and smell, and its cooling effect on the throat. 

Not only has the flavoring been associated with smoking among youth, but due to its painkilling and addictive properties, it also makes quitting the habit more difficult. 

This means more life-long consumers for the tobacco industry while those buyers live shorter, more medically-complicated lives — especially in the Black community. 

Nearly 85% of Black people who smoke use menthol cigarettes, compared to 30% of white smokers. 

Dr. Keith Wailoo, a history professor at Princeton University, noticed the stark difference in tobacco advertising when he moved from New York City to a New Jersey suburb as a kid. Photo courtesy of Dr. Keith Wailoo.

And according to a study published by the National Journal of Medicine, while Black people make up only 12% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 41% of premature deaths from menthol cigarettes between 1980 and 2018. 

Dr. Keith Wailoo — a history professor at Princeton University and the author of “Pushing Cool: Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette” — says it’s no accident that menthol cigarettes are used so heavily in the Black community. 

“That’s the product of sustained marketing and a wide range of strategies that began really in the 1960s and have explained why it is that the industry has been able to grow those markets, and then politically, why they’ve been able to sustain those markets,” he told Word In Black in a video interview. 

How Tobacco Companies ‘Pushed’ Menthol Cigarettes in Black Communities

Archive footage from Baltimore, Maryland’s WBAL-11 News shows people in a van handing out free cigarettes in front of the Murphy Homes public housing complex.

Wailoo says that in the 1960s, tobacco companies began advertising menthol cigarettes in urban Black communities. The products were origianlly marketed to college students, but the industry shifted its focus after regulators cracked down on their efforts to attract young buyers.

Kool, an American menthol cigarette brand that discontinued its sales this year, regularly bought advertising space in Black publications like Ebony magazine, as well as the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and other newspapers. 

“The makers of Kool started to see a rise [in sales] based on that,” he says. “And then every other company started to identify the Black inner city — some called them ‘poverty markets’ — as the new growth market.”

Wailoo says this is an example of uneven regulation — when regulators restrict an industry from doing one thing, and in response, the industry moves deeper into Black communities. 

This happened again around 1971 after Congress banned tobacco companies from broadcasting television and radio ads. 

“What does the industry do? They redouble their efforts in advertising in Black newspapers, but also billboards” in Black communities, Wailoo says. 

Advertising companies took their influence to the streets too. A document in Wailoo’s book, “Pushing Cool,” details how the companies advised Camel cigarette brand on how to target Black men in St. Louis in 1967. 

“Pushing Cool,” written by Dr. Keith Wailoo, reveals how Big Tobacco targeted Black urban communities as a market for its deadly menthol cigarettes. Photo courtesy of Dr. Keith Wailoo.

“They say things like, ‘Black, young men don’t watch TV as much as whites. They get information from the street. They get information from barbers and bellhops and bartenders and taxi drivers…And so what we do is we impart to them both factual knowledge as well as the product itself for them to distribute. But it has it has to be secret. It can’t look like we are doing it because it has to look like they have inside information,’” Wailoo says. 

The document lays out how the tobacco industry made it “look like a taste preference is emerging organically from the street,” Wailoo says, “when it was actually being pushed from outside.”

Tobacco companies also pushed menthol cigarettes using tactics like couponing and free samples. Leveraging the culture of music in the Black community, Kool even hosted jazz festivals in predominately-Black cities around the country; like Memphis, New Orleans, and Detroit.

Tactics like that worked. But if the FDA’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes happens, the ability to manipulate Black consumers into smoking the flavored “cancer sticks” could mean the end of a deadly era. 

Research Says the Menthol Cigarette Ban Could Save Black Lives 

The FDA announced its proposal to ban menthol cigarettes earlier this year, but it isn’t the first time they’ve tried to snatch the products off the market. 

The agency gained legal authority over tobacco products after the Obama Administration passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009. 

The act triggered a ban on all flavored cigarettes because flavoring was known to entice young people to smoke. But while all other flavors went out the window, menthol was left on the market.

Wailoo says “this could have all been settled in 2009” but political ties got in the way. 

“They exempted [menthol] because they weren’t sure they had the votes — the Democrats — because the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)  — a significant portion of which has longstanding donations from the tobacco industry — opposed a menthol ban,” he says. 

Word In Black reached out to the CBC for comment, but didn’t recieve a response. 

As the FDA considers a ban this time around, Wailoo says the CBC has shifted its position on the matter. 

“They’ve decided that the costs of the menthol cigarette in Black communities has been immense and it’s gone on too long,” he says.

This proposed ban comes after the Biden Administaion relaunched the Cancer Moonshot initiative in Februrary, which seeks to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years. 

As the FDA gears up to make its decision, some researchers say banning menthol cigarettes would mean less deaths, especially in the Black community. 

Dr. David Levy, a professor of oncology at Georgetown University in the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and a member of a tobacco regulatory center run by the FDA, first studied the potential impact on the general population before taking a closer look at Black smokers. 

Dr. David Levy is a member of a tobacco regulatory center run by the FDA who studied the potential impact of the menthol cigarette ban on the Black community. Photo courtesy of Dr. David Levy.

“Because menthol cigarettes are more predominantly used among non-Hispanic Blacks, we also did a study specifically for that group and we found a disproportionately greater effect both in terms of reducing smoking rates and in terms of health impacts,” he says about this study published this year. 

The menthol cigarette ban is estimated to extend lives by five to 15 years, Levy says. Over forty years, 255,895 premature deaths among Black people could be stopped, and 4.0 million years of life could be gained.

The ban could save many, but Levy says because smoking is “highly addictive,” a lot of people will continue smoking. Some may turn to e-cigarettes, which include flavorings like menthol. 

Alongside the menthol cigarette ban, however, the FDA is weighing whether or not to ban flavoring in e-cigarettes and cigars. 

Levy says, “I think that it’s important that they do, especially if they’re going to have a menthol ban.”

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