Blacks May Be Set to Lose Menthols

Is a possible FDA ban on mentholated cigarettes a good thing for the Black community?

Posted: 03/15/2011 03:10 PM EDT
mentol cigarettes, FDA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finally considering a ban on mentholated cigarettes. In 2009, The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was signed into law by President Obama, thus outlawing all flavored cigarettes. Menthols, however, avoided the ax, due in large part to the fact that their popularity amongst African-Americans allows them to dominate a quarter of the smoking market. The thought was that outlawing them would disproportionately attack Black smokers, but new legislators would like to challenge that thinking.

In 2008, when the smoking prevention act was still just a bill, several former administration health secretaries wrote an open letter asking authorities to include menthols in their flavored cigarettes ban. "Banning flavored cigarettes, which mask the harshness of tobacco—something that can deter some first-time smokers, especially children—is a positive move," said the letter. "But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African-Americans."

Many Black smokers can recall being directly targeted by mentholated cigarette brands like Kool and Newport when they were just children. One woman who gave a deposition in support of the ban, Marie Evans, said she started getting free packs of Newports from brand representatives at the age of nine. Women dressed in mint-green outfits would stand outside of Evans’ Roxbury housing projects in Boston and hand out free packs. Evans became addicted to smoking soon thereafter, and, just weeks after giving her frightening testimony on the ravages of mentholated cigarettes, she died of lung cancer.

In an internal memo from the Lorillard, the company that makes Newports, the company recommends “such promotions as calendars depicting Black athletes and Black women and distribution of free Newport samples at ‘Black conventions, expos, etc.’”

Sadly, Evans’ story isn’t unique. Many Blacks are facing the consequences associated with intense, focused menthol marketing to the community. In fact, research shows that African-Americans suffer disproportionately from lung cancer, with Black men getting the disease 50 percent more often than white men, and dying from the disease 36 percent more often.

After studying mentholated cigarettes for the past year, the FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is set to make its recommendations about menthols very soon. If the FDA ends up taking away menthols, blacks, who smoke the cigarettes at four-times the rate of whites, will undoubtedly take a disproportionate hit. But perhaps this is one case where that would be favorable.

(Photo:  Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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