This month saw several news items highlighting how menthol cigarettes are used to target specific populations. As reported in the New York Times, African American health advocates are reaching out directly to President Obama, asking him to acknowledge the role menthol plays in hooking black smokers, and to take action to prevent it. The story notes rising concerns among experts that menthol is creating and sustaining health disparities in African American communities.
Menthol is an additive that gives cigarette smoke a minty flavor and cooling sensation. Research shows many smokers believe menthol cigarettes are less harmful than other kinds. But menthol cigarettes are just as damaging to health, and in fact actually lead to greater addiction by making it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.
Tobacco companies began heavily marketing menthol cigarettes to African Americans in the 1960s, using models and language reflecting the black experience of the time. Menthol brands became – and remain – the top sellers for African American smokers. The tobacco industry still floods black communities with advertising, images and tailored messages linking menthol smoking with African American life and culture.
Today, 88 percent of black smokers in the United States smoke menthol cigarettes, with African Americans being more likely to suffer and die from smoking-related diseases. For instance, African Americans are 53 percent likelier to die of heart disease than whites.
Other groups like youth and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) individuals are targeted by menthol as well. Another recent article in the Wall Street Journal shows how R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Newport menthol cigarettes, is using mobile “Pleasure Lounges” to attract young people at musical festivals and other events. In Minnesota, nearly half of high-school smokers (44 percent) smoke menthols, and nationally, 71 percent of LGBTQ youth smokers do.
Organizations and individuals concerned about African American health equity are beginning to act. The NAACP has taken a stand supporting menthol regulations at the state and local level, and this year advocates launched a campaign exploring this issue called Black Lives/Black Lungs. Locally, the Duluth chapter of the NAACP is calling for more action, and ClearWay Minnesota has joined a coalition working to educate Minnesotans about menthol. We have also produced a TV ad that highlights the dangers of menthol to kids, and we hope to see more discussion and action on this issue from elected officials in the future.