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Why we have to curb the targeting of menthol tobacco products to African-Americans

This past year has seen a lot of attention paid to issues faced by African-Americans in this country. As a woman of color, I’ve been excited to see people paying attention, but saddened to see what it takes to make that happen.

There’s still one issue affecting black lives that hasn’t gotten its due in the public eye: menthol tobacco products. Many people identify menthol with African-Americans, and the stats back it up: 88 percent of African-Americans who smoke use menthols. But the reasons behind that menthol use may not be so clear, and I’m surprised how often people seem to have no understanding of the issue.

Here’s a little background. For decades, the tobacco industry marketed menthol cigarettes specifically to African-American people. They advertised in black publications, using models and images painstakingly researched to appeal to black adults and kids. They placed store and outdoor advertising in black neighborhoods, and sponsored music and sporting events. They even made donations to black community organizations to show how they supposedly cared about the lives of black people. All this was revealed to be a deliberate strategy during the tobacco trials of the 1990s.

Targeting methods are still being used

Today, there are a lot of restrictions on how companies can promote cigarettes. They can’t advertise on television, and direct advertising to kids (with cartoons, e.g.) is banned. But most of the ways I just mentioned for targeting African-Americans are still happening. Compare these two magazine ads – one from the 1980s, and one from this year. Can you tell the difference?

That this marketing hasn’t changed is astonishing, considering what we know about menthol. What do we know? Well, research shows adding menthol, an anesthetic chemical, to cigarettes makes it easier to smoke, easier to start smoking, and harder to quit. Smoking harms everyone who does it – but African-Americans smoke at higher rates, have higher incidence of cancer and heart disease from smoking, and worse outcomes from those diseases. Frankly put, this is a problem that is more intense in my community than in many other demographics. And incidentally, menthol was the only flavor exempted from a federal ban on flavored cigarettes when the FDA took tobacco over in 2009.

The result? African-Americans are more than 30 percent more likely to die of lung cancer than whites. In fact, African-Americans have the highest death rates and shortest survival rates from most cancers. We are also 53 percent more likely to die of heart disease. Tobacco plays a big role in these disturbing disparities. And the numbers should put any question of how much the tobacco industry “cares” about black people into clear perspective.

Free choice is compromised

Some say that this is a personal choice issue. People choose to smoke, and if they want to smoke menthol, so be it. But consider this: When a billion-dollar industry targets a particular community with a product that is addictive and deadly, and works for decades to ingrain the product into that community’s culture, free choice is compromised.

These are the facts:

  • The industry tailors its ads to get black people to try menthols.
  • Menthol makes it easier to start smoking.
  • It also makes it harder to quit.

That isn’t what I call a “choice.”

The menthol issue

We can’t address tobacco in the African-American community without addressing menthol head on. Studies suggest if menthol were banned in the United States, 39 percent of menthol smokers, including 47 percent of African-American menthol smokers, would quit smoking. In Minnesota, new research shows African-Americans feel a menthol ban would help them quit smoking – in fact, they are twice as likely to try to quit as white smokers in the face of a menthol ban.

LaTrisha Vetaw

LaTrisha Vetaw

There have been no menthol bans proposed in Minnesota yet, but we are on the leading edge of related work to address flavored tobacco. A proposal currently before the Minneapolis City Council would limit businesses that can sell most flavored tobacco – it stops short of including menthol, but is a step in the right direction. At the state level, this year the Legislature passed a proposal to fund a study and action around menthol use by African-Americans in one Minnesota community.

Also, some recent community conversations about menthol have been held in Minnesota. Experts from the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network have been meeting with local black community leaders to raise awareness of this problem.

Given the role menthol plays in creating and sustaining addiction, and the enormous rates of menthol use by black Minnesotans, it’s time someone did something about this. The steps being taken here a just a start, but it’s a good start, and I’m proud of Minnesota for taking them.

LaTrisha Vetaw is a cancer survivor and program coordinator at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by S.T. Malleck on 08/15/2015 - 07:42 pm.

    Public advocacy = good, Government force = bad

    It may be true that companies have marketed menthol tobacco to the black community. But here’s another thought: many people, including black folks, may personally prefer the taste of menthols.

    If you believe others should not use menthols, then by all means, speak out about the dangers and try to *convince* others not to use them. Ms Vetaw, I salute your efforts to raise awareness. An article like this is a great way to do that.

    But please don’t become the latest mini-Hitler out there trying to dictate what’s best for everyone by calling for a new government ban. If other people prefer menthols, who are you to tell them they cannot choose them? If you do, you’re doing a grave disservice to the community by saying that black adults don’t have the ability to make their own decisions.

    Living in a free society means that all people have the freewill to make their own choices. And being a good neighbor means encouraging others to make what you feel is the right choice, but still ultimately respecting the decisions they make … whether you agree with their choices or not.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 08/16/2015 - 09:48 am.

      Marketing has power. It might suck to have to admit that we are a persuadable species, but that’s just the way it is. If marketing didn’t have power, then it wouldn’t be the huge industry that it is. After all, smart capitalists don’t spend money on something unless it pays back, right?

      And if, in fact, menthol has an anesthetic effect (something I was unaware of previously) then that’s yet another confounding factor to take into effect when evaluating to what degree “free will” is actually left to be at play here.

      When a company knowingly and calculatedly includes an ingredient that not only makes it easier to start this addictive habit, but also much harder to stop, then I find it entirely appropriate that the government step in to help level the playing field.

  2. Submitted by Russell Booth on 08/17/2015 - 06:02 pm.

    What about menthol flavor without the smoke?

    I did not understand why menthol cigarettes are preferred by African Americans but marketing seems a likely culprit. Thanks LaTrisha.

    I hope the Minneapolis city council will not jump on the temperance band wagon. As a nation we have learned that temperance movements are very beneficial – to organized crime.

    Tobacco smoke causes a great deal of harm to health, nicotine itself not much. And the method of nicotine ingestion makes little or no difference (it’s not an inhalation hazard even at elevated dose long-term according to the NIH).

    E-cigs risks are all very well known, except for the flavoring agents. Many e-cig companies use FDA approved flavoring agents but they are approved for eating, not inhaling. The flavoring, and that only, is the unknown risk of inhaling e-cig vapor.

    If people were encouraged to switch to e-cigs and did, even if menthol flavored, the adverse health effects of nicotine dependence would drop dramatically. Currently people are only encouraged by the government to get nicotine replacement with patches, lozenges and gum (by tax reduction through medical spending accounts). Methods that are not very successful. E-cigs are a much more direct substitute for current smokers.

    It would be good for the African American community, children and every other demographic if the government would encourage nicotine replacement in any and every form that helps people quit or not start smoking.

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