The Menthol Issue

We fight against the marketing and sale of deadly tobacco products to African Americans.

The Fight Against Menthol​

Our Position on the Issue of Menthol

Tobacco-related illness is still the primary cause of death for African Americans. For decades, The Center of Black Health & Equity (formerly NAATPN, Inc.) has fought against the marketing and sale of deadly tobacco products to African Americans. It is commonly known that menthol makes smoking easier to start and harder to quit. This is no exception for African Americans who consistently report more quit attempts than the general smoking population, yet experience lower success rates. Because more than 85% of African American smokers prefer menthols (as compared to 30% of Caucasian smokers), we have given particular attention to the elimination of mentholated tobacco products.

The tobacco industry has executed a calculated, menthol-centered strategy to establish a strong presence in African American communities, appropriate African American culture, and create a dependency on tobacco funding. As such, the predominate use of menthols among African American smokers is well documented among public health authorities.  However, we have observed the way in which tobacco control advocates have negotiated to exclude menthol as a means to protect other demographics from the harms of candy-flavored tobacco.  We consider this to be counterproductive and an affront to the integrity of public health efforts. Further, we consider this to be reflective of historical racism.

African American populations have been disregarded as casualties of corporate profits and tobacco policy quick-wins. In order to address this social justice issue, The Center for Black Health & Equity is committed to 1) challenging the tobacco industry’s infiltration into African American communities 2) promoting innovative, culturally competent cessation programs, and 3) educating community decision makers on effective strategies for enacting comprehensive tobacco-free policies. Most importantly, the issue of menthol must be viewed through the lens of racial equality and addressed through the work of restorative justice.

Tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death and disease among African Americans. Aprohibition on the manufacture and sale of mentholated tobacco products will help decrease the rate of preventable deaths in the Black community.I know many White people whosmoke menthols. Why is this a racial issue? For decades the tobacco industry specifically marketed menthols to African American communities. The industry appropriated elements of Black culture and heavily invested advertising dollars into African American publications. Theyare known forsponsoringBlack events likethe KOOL Jazz festival, saturatingurban Black neighborhood stores with ads, and pricing menthols more cheaply in Black neighborhoods. As a result of their efforts, 85% of African American smokers choose menthols while less than 30% of White smokers prefer menthols. Isn’t tobacco use an issue of personal responsibility?The tobacco industry used to distribute free samples of their deadly products to underage youth, handing them out from mobile units in Black neighborhoods like an ice cream truck. To this day, tobacco companies donate millions of dollars to institutions that provide credible unbiassed information for making good decisions. These include historically Black colleges and universities, African American newspapers, civic leaders, researchers and elected officials. Research shows that quitting menthols is more difficult than quitting tobacco without this characterizing flavor. African Americans consistently reportmore, but less successful,attempts at quitting menthols. It is possible that tobacco use isnotas personal of a choice as many assume.Won’t a ban on menthol increase the potential for unjustly criminalizing African AmericansThis is atobacco industry argument that exploits the real issues of police brutality and mass incarceration. Excessive force and systemic racism are problems that must be addressed independently of public health measures. The FDA ban on mentholated tobacco polices manufacturersand retailersof the product—not an individual’s use or possession of them.Isn’t it true that a ban on menthol will only create a black market?Data from countries (including Canada) that have already banned menthol cigarettes and data from the United States after banning other flavored cigarettes show no likelihood of international, illicit trade of menthol cigarettes after they are prohibited. Surveys show, in fact, that a ban would encourage African Americans to quit menthols rather than seek them from ablack market.Is theFDA just trying to take away our personal freedom?Like food, drugs, cleaning products and cosmetics, the FDA regulates products that pose a threat to the public’s healthor safety. They do not regulate personal choices.Aren’t there bigger issues facingthe Black community?Tobacco related illness kills more African Americans than murders, suicides, HIV and car accidents combined. It would be an injustice to be silent on the issue.

Eliminating the sale and predatory marketing of mentholated tobacco products in Black communities will lead to health equity.

In African American communities, the tobacco industry is known for offering free cigarette samples at neighborhood gatherings, overwhelming convenience stores with tobacco advertising, discounting menthols and e-cigarette starter packs, and providing sponsorship dollars to our most iconic cultural events, educational institutions and civic leaders. To boot, they have appropriated our culture, masterfully associating menthols with our celebrities, our music, and sense of cool. We believe that the tobacco industry’s concerted effort to saturate our communities with their deadly products has led to more intense nicotine addiction among African Americans and has had the effect of “buying silence” when the issue of tobacco control is raised. Advocates and allies must fill the gaps left open by tobacco control regulators to stand against targeted, predatory marketing.

It is our recommendation that states and localities:

  • Eliminate predatory marketing practices to vulnerable populations including dense advertising, discounts and e-cigarette sampling in focus communities.
  • Provide counter-marketing education to youth engaged in civic leadership activities.
  • Reduce reliance on tobacco industry funding by creating opportunities for economic development for historically disinvested communities.

 

Reject the tobacco industry’s attempt to co-opt African American voices and position itself as a thought leader in our community.

Since the Civil Rights era, the tobacco industry has promulgated the idea that an African American’s choice to smoke is closely tied to his or her independence and personal freedom. This manipulative tactic has since evolved connecting a ban on menthol to the criminalization of African Americans. Because tobacco has played a peripheral role in the recent murders of young African Americans at the hands of White police officers, the tobacco industry has begun to advocate for social change in this area. However, it should be understood that the industry is covertly promoting its own policy agenda to keep menthols on shelves. They have used respected African American civic leaders to host events and have claimed to honor Black Lives while denying responsibility for the 40,000 Black deaths they cause each year.   Indeed, there is no evidence to support the idea that a ban on menthol will result in over-policing. This convoluted and false perspective.

It is our recommendation that communities:

  • Break all ties with tobacco industry executives taking interest in policing or social justice issues impacting African Americans.
  • Continue to educate African American civic leaders about the history of tobacco and African Americans, health disparities, and policies that contribute to health justice
  • Develop carefully constructed menthol-related policies that explicitly place the legal burden upon retailers rather than consumers.

 

The issue of menthol must be viewed through the lens of racial equality and addressed through the work of restorative justice.

Historically, the public health community has not prioritized African Americans in the move toward a healthier, tobacco-free society. Both the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee and the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that removing menthol from the marketplace would have a significant public health impact and save thousands of African American lives.  Yet, we have seen little movement here. Conversely, when recommendations are made that protect similarly vulnerable populations such as Caucasian youth, swift action is taken to enact strong, proactive policies.  It is clear that there is a general apathy toward African Americans that is likely rooted in America’s history of racism.

It is our recommendation that public health advocates:

  • Seek to support cessation efforts by supporting culturally competent resources that acknowledge America’s history of slavery and racism.
  • Align tobacco-related policies with legislative efforts designed eliminate social inequalities.
  • Engage African American public health advocates and thought leaders in both policy and community health outreach efforts.