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How the Tobacco Industry Hooked Black Smokers on Menthols

How the Tobacco Industry Hooked Black Smokers on Menthols

Guest Essay by Keith Wailoo

Dr. Wailoo is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette.”

As regulation of the tobacco industry has grown more and more extensive in recent decades, menthol cigarettes have been an exception. They account for more than one-third of cigarette sales in the United States and are especially dangerous because the menthol enhances nicotine’s already potent addictive effects.

Now the Food and Drug Administration is moving to ban these cigarettes, smoked by more than 18 million people ages 12 and over. Among Black smokers, 85 percent smoke menthol cigarettes, compared with 30 percent of white smokers. Banning them in the United States is a crucial step in the decades-long effort to reduce smoking, especially among young people. The toll is enormous: Nearly a half-million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses.

From the start, the marketing of menthol cigarettes, targeted at Black people over the past half-century, was built on an underlying, deeply cynical deception: They were healthy and restorative. First promoted in the 1920s and 1930s, menthol cigarettes were trumpeted by the tobacco industry with a false therapeutic promise that they would relieve what was called “smoker’s throat.” In the 1940s, regulators with the Federal Trade Commission ordered the makers of Kool menthol cigarettes to cease linking its product to deceitful health claims such as “doctors know the beneficial head clearing quality of menthol.”

The fortunes of menthol brands nevertheless rose in the 1950s. As the tobacco industry was buffeted by studies directly linking smoking and cancer, industry psychologists concluded that menthol cigarettes, masquerading as a healthful choice, were gaining in sales because they signified security for anxious smokers. Menthol’s therapeutic messaging became the basis for huge growth in cigarette sales in the 1950s and 1960s.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that these false health appeals were specifically aimed at Black consumers. Facing threats of regulation for its youth-oriented advertising and seeking new opportunities for growth, the tobacco industry turned from aggressive college marketing campaigns to building markets in Black communities.

Industry documents from 1967, for example, describe influence campaigns among young Black men in St. Louis: handing out free samples to those who were the “kingfish” in the community and building brand following through barbers, bellhops and taxi drivers, who also distributed free samples. Class was also at play in the industry’s strategy. Industry documents described Newark, for instance, as a leading “poverty market” for building menthol sales.

When Congress voted in 1970 to ban national television and radio ads for cigarettes beginning in 1971, industry records reveal how tobacco companies gradually pivoted to Black periodicals and intensified urban billboard advertising. The documents also outlined how to reach public transit riders in Pittsburgh with Black-themed ads (but only on the inside of certain buses carrying large percentages of Black commuters, and not on the buses’ exteriors since they traveled through majority-white neighborhoods).

Industry efforts to cultivate influencers in the Black community extended to local media dependent on advertising revenue, organizations seeking tobacco industry funding and politicians reliant on campaign contributions. Menthol’s web expanded from the 1960s through the 1990s — even as Black communities suffered and rallied in opposition. In the 1990s, this targeting of Black communities reached a turning point with R.J. Reynolds’s ill-fated Uptown, a new menthol brand test-marketed in Philadelphia’s Black neighborhoods. A fierce backlash ensued as Dr. Louis Sullivan, the secretary of health and human services in the George H.W. Bush administration, joined grass-roots activists in denouncing the scheme as “slick and sinister.”

This resistance halted the Uptown campaign, but not before the industry called on some of its allies for support, among them the N.A.A.C.P.’s executive director, Benjamin Hooks. The civil rights group had grown reliant on tobacco industry support, and Mr. Hooks was keen to defend the industry’s right to use urban billboards or sell Uptown as an exclusively Black brand. Mr. Hooks also lambasted industry critics as themselves racist and paternalistic for suggesting that Black people needed “guardian angels” to make consumer decisions for them.

In the end, Dr. Sullivan’s argument prevailed against Uptown’s “promoting a culture of cancer,” as he called it. Efforts to ban tobacco billboards in the name of safeguarding the public’s health also prevailed, incorporated into the 1998 agreement between 46 states and the major tobacco companies to pay the states billions of dollars in compensation for the costs of smoking-related diseases.

Yet, new shrewd and deceitful practices allowed menthol cigarettes to flourish. Big Tobacco’s strategy of supporting civic causes, organizations, cultural events and politicians in the Black community paid off when Congress gave the F.D.A. authority to regulate tobacco products in 2009 but exempted menthol from the flavors that would be banned. At the time, the Congressional Black Caucus was split on the menthol question, with some beneficiaries of industry dollars opposing a ban while other caucus members voiced deep concerns about the health toll of targeted marketing on Black communities.

The exemption was seen as a way to win broad support in Congress for the bill. Lawmakers instead authorized the agency to study the additive and ban it if the findings supported such a step. The F.D.A. sought to move against menthols twice since then, facing opposition from the industry as well as the influencers they financed. In recent years, those influencers have trafficked in fears that banning menthol cigarettes will produce bootleg menthol products, ramped-up police surveillance and more tragic episodes like that of Eric Garner, who was strangled in a police chokehold while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a street on Staten Island.

In making the case against the menthol ban, such figures are working from an old tobacco playbook. Relying on industry funding, they use legitimate civil rights concerns about biased policing and racial discrimination to help Big Tobacco defend its lucrative menthol markets. Their argument, like menthol itself, is a cynical distraction.

The truth is that menthol cigarettes and the death of Mr. Garner are linked by his plaintive cry of “I can’t breathe,” part of a long history of systemic targeting of Black people. The story of Big Tobacco and menthol is a rolling tragedy where the violence occurs off camera. It is a slower extraction of health and wealth, playing out not over minutes but decades and generations. But make no mistake, menthol cigarette smoking often leads to decimated lungs, emphysema, cancer and a range of other ailments, ending too often in a tragic plea for air.

After decades of outcries from communities and public health experts about the health inequities and dangers posed by menthol marketing (with the N.A.A.C.P. now urging a ban), the F.D.A.’s proposed rule that would impose the ban, announced April 28, is a long-awaited step that will save hundreds of thousands of lives in the decades to come. The agency is now accepting public comments and will hold two hearings before finalizing its rule.

We should not be distracted by those who work on behalf of the tobacco industry while claiming to speak for Black health and well-being. They are part of the web that has maintained the stranglehold, enticing consumers with deceptive promises.

Keith Wailoo is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of “Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette.”


FDA’s Proposed Rules to Prohibit Menthol Cigarettes and Flavored Cigars Will Protect Kids, Advance Health Equity and Save Lives, Especially Among Black Americans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – By issuing proposed rules today to prohibit menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars, the FDA is taking historic and long-overdue action to protect our nation’s kids, advance health equity and save lives, especially among Black Americans and other populations that have been targeted by the tobacco industry and suffered enormous harm from the predatory marketing of these products.  For decades the tobacco industry has deliberately targeted Black communities with marketing for menthol cigarettes, with tragic consequences. The industry also uses these flavored products to lure kids into a deadly addiction. These rules will, once and for all, put an end to these predatory and deadly practices.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the stark health disparities that exist in the United States. Tobacco use is a significant contributor to these disparities, and Black Americans die at higher rates from tobacco-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke. The FDA’s proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars will have a profound and certain impact in reducing these health disparities.

The Biden Administration and the FDA deserve immense credit for standing up to the tobacco industry and moving forward with this bold, lifesaving policy, as they promised to do one year ago. Once implemented, these rules will represent some of the strongest actions our nation has ever taken to drive down the number of kids who start smoking and the number of Americans who are sickened and killed by tobacco.

Once again putting profits before lives, the tobacco industry is going all-out to fight these rules and push false claims that they will subject Black Americans to more law enforcement abuse. The FDA has made it crystal clear that these claims are without merit. The FDA has stated that its rules will apply to manufacturers and retailers and that it “cannot and will not enforce against any individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product.” Racial bias in policing is a critical issue that must be addressed. But the tobacco industry’s cynical fearmongering cannot hide the fact that the industry itself has caused so much harm to Black Americans through the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes.

There is strong support for prohibiting menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from a wide range of organizations, scientists and elected officials – including from leading Black organizations and members of Congress. Supporters include the NAACP, other Black civil rights and public health organizationsmembers of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a broad coalition of 77 public health, medical, education and community organizations. In a letter this month, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson powerfully stated, “We do not agree with the tobacco industry’s message and strategy presented by a few Black leaders: prohibiting menthol cigarettes would be discriminatory. We reject this view. The failure to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and products would be discriminatory and counter the goal and function of the FDA to protect and promote public health for all, including the African-American community.”

Because of the profound impact these rules can have on our nation’s health, the FDA has an obligation to finalize and implement them with utmost urgency. The faster these rules are implemented, the faster we can stop the tobacco industry’s lethal targeting of Black and other communities, the more kids we will prevent from smoking, and the more lives we will save.


These rules are long overdue and supported by overwhelming scientific evidence. It has been more than a decade since the FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee concluded in a landmark 2011 report that the removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States. Based on the scientific evidence, the FDA has found that menthol cigarettes are easier for kids to start smoking, more addictive and harder for smokers to quit.

Eliminating menthol cigarettes will protect kids from tobacco addiction. Menthol cools and numbs the throat and masks the harshness of tobacco smoke, making it easier for kids to start smoking and eventually become addicted. According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 41% of all current high school smokers use menthol cigarettes. 

Eliminating menthol cigarettes will save lives and reduce health disparities, especially among Black Americans. For more than 60 years, the tobacco industry has deliberately targeted Black communities with marketing for menthol cigarettes through magazine ads, sponsorship of community and music events, free samples and other tactics.  In the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, that number is 85%.

The industry’s targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes has caused enormous harm to the health of Black Americans. Tobacco use is the number cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives each year. Largely because of more addictive menthol cigarettes, Black smokers have a harder time quitting smoking and die at higher rates from tobacco-related diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke.

2021 study found that menthol cigarettes were responsible for 10.1 million additional smokers and 378,000 premature deaths in the U.S. from 1980 to 2018. This research underscores that Black Americans have been disproportionately harmed: While making up 12% of the U.S. population, Black Americans represented 15% of the additional smokers and a staggering 41% of the premature deaths due to menthol cigarettes – 157,000 premature deaths among Black Americans altogether.

Eliminating flavored cigars will also protect kids and reduce health disparities. Cheap, flavored cigars are sold in over 250 flavors – like banana smash, cherry dynamite and chocolate, as well as menthol. These flavored products have flooded the market in recent years and fueled the popularity of cigars with kids. 74% of youth cigar smokers report that they smoke cigars “because they come in flavors I like.” The 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that cigars are the second most popular tobacco product (after e-cigarettes) among all high school students and are especially popular among Black high school students.

Broken Promises to Our Children

A State-by-State Look at the 1998 Tobacco Settlement 23 Years Later

Despite receiving $27 billion from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, the states continue to severely underfund tobacco prevention and cessation programs proven to save lives and money. In the midst of a youth e-cigarette epidemic, such programs are as critical as ever.

Since the states settled their lawsuits against the major tobacco companies in 1998, our annual reports have assessed whether the states are keeping their promise to use a significant portion of their settlement funds – estimated at $246 billion over the first 25 years – to attack the enormous public health problems caused by tobacco use in the United States.

Despite receiving huge sums from the settlement and collecting billions more in tobacco taxes, the states continue to shortchange tobacco prevention and cessation programs that are proven to save lives and reduce health care costs. As the nation continues to face dual health threats from an unprecedented respiratory pandemic and a youth e-cigarette epidemic that threatens millions of young people with a lifetime of addiction, most states continue to shortchange programs designed to prevent kids from using tobacco products and help tobacco users quit.

In the current budget year, Fiscal Year 2022, the states will collect $27 billion from the settlement and taxes. But they will spend just 2.7% of it – $718.5 million – on programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit. This total is a 9.5% increase from last year but still barely a fifth (21.7%) of the total funding recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The top three states in actual spending (California, Florida and New York) spent a total of $365.4 million or more than the other 47 states and Washington, D.C. combined ($353.2 million). A handful of states, though, show a promising path forward for other states to follow.

The overall increase in spending can be attributed primarily to three states – Oregon, California and North Carolina. Oregon’s increase is due to a $2-per-pack tobacco tax increase voters strongly approved in 2020, with some funds allocated for tobacco prevention and cessation programs. California’s spending has been strong since voters there overwhelmingly approved a $2-per-pack tobacco tax hike in 2016. North Carolina has additional funds from their recent legal settlement with Juul, the company most responsible for causing the youth e-cigarette epidemic.

Meanwhile, tobacco companies spend $8.4 billion a year – almost $1 million every hour – to market their deadly and addictive products. This means tobacco companies spend over $11 to market their products for every $1 the states spend to reduce tobacco use.

States must do more to fight tobacco use – still the nation’s No. 1 cause of preventable death and disease – to accelerate progress and confront the growing epidemic of youth e-cigarette use in America.

This report is issued by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and Truth Initiative.



Click on each state to view the full data. Follow this link for information on the District of Columbia.


Other key findings include:

  • The $718.5 million the states have budgeted for tobacco prevention amounts to just 21.7% of the $3.3 billion the CDC recommends for all states combined.
  • Not a single state currently funds tobacco prevention programs at the level recommended by the CDC.
  • Oregon (93.9%) and Alaska (89.6%) are the only states to provide even three-quarters of the CDC-recommended funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs..
  • Thirty-three states and DC are providing less than 25% of what the CDC recommends; 19 states provide less than 10%.

Along with separate policy actions, including higher tobacco taxes and comprehensive smoke-free laws, state tobacco prevention programs have helped drive down smoking rates to record lows – 14.0 percent among adults and 4.6 percent among high school students. But tobacco use still kills more than 480,000 Americans and costs the nation over $226 billion in health care expenses each year.

Our progress shows that the battle against tobacco is entirely winnable if proven strategies are fully implemented. But enormous challenges remain. The latest government surveys show that 20.8% of U.S. adults and 23.6% of high school students still use some form of tobacco. The U.S. is also facing large disparities in who still smokes. Adult smoking rates remain the highest among people with lower income and less education, residents of the Midwest and the South, American Indians/Alaska Natives, LGBTQ Americans, those who are uninsured or enrolled in Medicaid, and those with mental illness. In addition, Black Americans die at higher rates from smoking-caused diseases, in large part due to the tobacco industry’s predatory targeting of Black communities with menthol cigarettes.

The report comes as youth use of e-cigarettes remains a serious public health problem. With 2 million U.S. kids using e-cigarettes, including 11.3% of high school students, states should be devoting more of their tobacco dollars to help fight this epidemic.

On the 23rd anniversary of the tobacco settlement, it is time for a renewed national commitment to finish the fight against tobacco, eliminate the death and disease it causes, and end the youth e-cigarette epidemic threatening to addict a whole new generation. With bold action, our nation can make the next generation tobacco-free.









T21 reduced cigarette sales by 12.3% and e-cigarette sales by 49.1%

Rahi Abouk

William Paterson University

Prabal K. De

City College of New York; CUNY Graduate Center

Michael Pesko

Georgia State University – Department of Economics

Date Written: December 28, 2021



We examine the effect of Tobacco 21 laws (T21), which raise the minimum legal sale age of tobacco to 21. We estimate difference-in-differences models using the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey data and Nielsen Retail Scanner data from 2012 to 2019. Our outcomes include cigarette and e-cigarette use and sales and potential mechanisms of T21 such as perceived risks of using cigarettes and e-cigarettes and retailer ID checking. We find that T21 sizably reduces 12th grade cigarette use by 35 percent and modestly reduces cigarette use for 8th and 10th graders. We also find some evidence that T21 reduces e-cigarette use across all grades. We find that T21 increases ID checking and perceived risks of both tobacco products. Finally, analyses of the 2012-2019 Nielsen Retail Scanner Data suggest that in counties with the highest quartile of the share of individuals under 21, T21 reduced cigarette sales by 12.3% and e-cigarette sales by 49.1%.

Keywords: Youth Smoking, Tobacco 21

JEL Classification: I12, I18

Abouk, Rahi and De, Prabal and Pesko, Michael, Estimating the Effects of Tobacco-21 on Youth Tobacco Use and Sales (December 28, 2021). Available at SSRN: or