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.”