Congress is considering a bill which would allow the FDA to ban flavored cigarettes like cloves, because critics believe they’re targeted at children. But menthol cigarettes would fall under that jurisdiction, and some folks think it’s because black folk are more likely to smoke them. Part of the problem is that menthol jacks are a huge segment of the market:

The reason menthol is seen as politically off limits, despite those concerns, is that mentholated brands are so crucial to the American cigarette industry. They make up more than one-fourth of the $70 billion American cigarette market and are becoming increasingly important to the industry leader, Philip Morris USA, without whose lobbying support the legislation might have no chance of passage.


Menthol is particularly controversial because public health authorities have worried about its health effects on African-Americans. Nearly 75 percent of black smokers use menthol brands, compared with only about one in four white smokers.

That is why one former public health official says the legislation’s menthol exemption is a “cave-in to the industry,” an opinion shared by some other public health advocates.

“I think we can say definitively that menthol induces smoking in the African-American community and subsequently serves as a direct link to African-American death and disease,” said the former official, Robert G. Robinson, who retired two years ago as an associate director in the office of smoking and health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The high rate of menthol cigarette smoking isn’t a coincidence. The tobacco companies specifically targeted menthol advertising at black consumers (not that you’d know if from those Newport ads). From a 1998 NYT article:

The internal company records from tobacco giants, including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, show how the cigarette makers ran advertising campaigns in magazines, on billboards and buses and in other media to attract blacks, especially to mentholated brands like Salem and Kool.


One 1973 Brown & Williamson document, for example, showed that 17 percent of the company’s promotional budget for Kools was spent on marketing to blacks, who made up only 10 percent of the population.

What’s interesting is back then, some black publications were actually happy about the advertising revenue, and said they might go out of business if the cigarette companies weren’t buying so many ads. That’s a pretty grim price to pay for the mortgage.

Some studies suggest menthol cigarettes are actually more addictive, which may account for racial disparities in lung cancer:

Scientists who study smoking have identified various disparities in the health of black and white smokers. National Cancer Institute data shows that African-American men get lung cancer at a rate 50 percent higher than white men — a gap that most scientists say cannot be fully explained by historically higher rates of smoking by black men.

One theory suggests that menthol in cigarettes, by providing an additional pleasurable sensory cue to smokers, reinforces addiction.

“There is evidence from different studies that it’s harder to quit menthol cigarettes,” said Dr. Neal L. Benowitz, a pharmacologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the nation’s leading tobacco researchers. He calls menthol a “public health risk.”

I don’t know how I feel about banning cigarettes. On the one hand, it’s kind of like fatty food; it’s bad for you, it can kill you, but you have to choose to put it in your mouth. And I say that as a former smoker. Aside from making a lot of people I know really irritable, I’m not sure that banning menthols would actually convince smokers to quit.

UPDATE: Just call me Rev. Wright, because…um…

I mean really with the Daishiki though? It’s not just aimed at black folks, it’s kinda saying you ain’t even really black unless you smoke Newports. 

Image via Stereohyped.

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