Did you know that 85% of African American smokers and 93% of Black youth smokers in the United States use menthol cigarettes? That’s a staggering statistic, and if you ask Dr. Phillip Gardiner, public health advocate and Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, those numbers are no accident.
Big Tobacco has a long history of targeting Black communities in their marketing efforts, and promoting menthol-flavored tobacco products has been a key part of this strategy. As parents, it’s our responsibility to protect our children from these predatory practices and educate them about the dangers of smoking.
Big Tobacco’s History of Targeting Black Communities
Dr. Gardiner says that beginning in the 1950s, Big Tobacco used well-placed ads in Ebony Magazine and Jet Magazine, well-known publications written for a Black audience. They also enlisted popular sports figures Willie Mays and Elston Howard to promote their menthol products, making it seem cool and a sign of upward mobility. Since then, in every decade, Big Tobacco has continued to use language and imagery that speaks to Black culture.
Tobacco companies advertise cigarettes in ways that suggest smoking is a way to assert independence, strength, and individuality, and they use colorful packaging and branding to appeal to young people. They have staged promotions on busy street corners in Black neighborhoods where they offer free samples of menthol cigarettes to teenagers. They have even sponsored events popular with young people, such as jazz and hip-hop concerts.
Big Tobacco used these tactics to create a culture where smoking menthol cigarettes was seen as a way to assert independence, be cool, and be part of a community. And those tactics worked because now we have high rates of menthol cigarette use in the Black community, with 85% of Black adults and 93% of Black youth using menthol cigarettes today.
The Highly Addictive Nature of Menthol Cigarettes
The reality is that smoking any type of cigarette, including menthol cigarettes, is unsafe and poses serious health risks. Dr. Gardiner calls cigarettes “poison sticks” and says menthol cigarettes, in particular, are highly addictive.
The tobacco industry added menthol to these products to provide an anesthetic cooling and numbing sensation in the mouth, masking the harsh taste of nicotine and allowing you to inhale deeper when you smoke. “The deeper you inhale, the more nicotine and toxins you take in. The more you take in, the more addicted you become. And the more addicted you become, the harder it is to quit.” Dr. Gardiner says menthol “helps the poison go down easier.”
Recent Legal Efforts to Ban Menthol-Flavored Tobacco Products
It can be daunting to fight a $72 billion business, but recently some groups took action. In 2020, several organizations joined together in a lawsuit asking the court to compel the FDA to ban the sale of menthol-flavored tobacco products, and the FDA agreed to take action to do so.
While implementation of the federal ban could take years, some local governments have already taken action to ban the sale of menthol products. For example, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and all other flavored tobacco products in 2018, paving the way for other municipalities to take similar action to protect the health of their residents.
Educating Our Kids About Menthol-Flavored Cigarettes
Dr. Gardiner says the strongest thing we can do as parents is to keep telling the story of the tobacco industry and its predatory practices. Spread the truth in our communities and protect our kids by informing them about the dangers of smoking and the manipulative tactics used by Big Tobacco.
- We can talk to our kids about why menthol is not just a flavor for tobacco products.
- We can tell our kids about addiction and cancer rates associated with tobacco, and call attention to the groups most affected by tobacco.
- We can help our kids understand where tobacco came from, how it got commercialized, and how it’s still being used against groups of people.
Engaging in these honest conversations can be hard, but it’s so important to recognize the harmful impact of Big Tobacco’s predatory marketing practices and take action to protect our children. As parents, we have the power to educate and empower our children to fight against Big Tobacco and to advocate for change in our communities. Together, we can create a safer, healthier future for our families.