As a physician and veteran of the Armed Forces, I’ve made it my mission to save lives. While practicing first as a dentist (DDS), and today as an MD specializing in Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery, I’ve treated too many patients suffering from cancer-caused illness and disease, particularly those caused by the use of tobacco.
While some may believe that the war against Big Tobacco has been won or is at least waning, the commercial tobacco industry continues its attack on our health by conducting massive marketing campaigns that directly target not only youth, but in large part Black and Indigenous Americans, and LGBTQ+ communities.
Of grave concern is that most of these campaigns today focus on the use of menthol tobacco products, which are designed to be even more addictive, and significantly reduce a person’s success at quitting. Menthol is a minty flavor added to cigarettes and other commercial tobacco products. When consumed, the minty flavor produces a cooling and anesthetic effect. This additive makes smoking easier to start and harder to quit. Menthol-flavored products are so chemically addictive and widely available that they have become one of the tobacco industry’s most important, albeit exploitative, revenue streams.
There is ample proof that young people and people in communities of color are disproportionately using menthol tobacco products. According to ClearWay MN, among Black Americans who smoke, 88 percent smoke menthol cigarettes compared to 26 percent of white smokers. And this is not because of a lack of motivation to stop. In fact, the CDC reports that nearly three quarters of Black Americans want to quit smoking and typically have more quit attempts than other demographic segments. Unfortunately, the addictive nature of menthol and targeted marketing by the tobacco industry has created an environment where tobacco use remains the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans.
The numbers for our youth are concerning as well. While current statistics report that only 3% of Minnesota’s high school students smoke cigarettes, today nearly 20% use e-cigarettes and a 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey reports “prominent use” of menthol e-cigarettes in particular. Published research curated by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids further reports that “one-third of underage experimentation is due to tobacco company advertising.”
Why does tobacco use, and menthol tobacco use in particular, still have such a negative impact on the health of people in these groups? First, remember that tobacco companies have marketed to youth and communities of color, especially Black communities with menthol tobacco, for decades. In fact, as internal tobacco industry documents reveal, tobacco marketers have consistently deemed these population segments “easy to reach.” More recently the Truth Initiative and others have highlighted widespread, ongoing tactics of tobacco companies that purposefully target menthol tobacco product advertising toward youth, Black Americans, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities.
Clearly, the combination of Big Tobacco’s aggressive marketing campaigns and the increased addictiveness of menthol tobacco is an equation that continues to kill our young people and people in targeted communities, which often are Black and other communities of color. Equally clear is that the war against the tobacco industry is far from over, and that the fight to eliminate the use of menthol tobacco products is our biggest battle.
The recent announcement by the FDA of its intention to ban menthol cigarettes is good news. But Minnesotans cannot allow more lives to be lost and young people to become addicted while waiting for a laborious government process whose success is not a foregone conclusion. Our state has been at the forefront of many anti-tobacco initiatives in the past. Minnesota must continue its legacy of leadership to protect our youth and targeted communities against the harms of Big Tobacco.
There are major strategies that need to be deployed now to reduce the harm caused by Big Tobacco’s dangerous and unethical advertising practices. First, we must no longer allow any lobbying by the tobacco industry within our state legislature. This also includes prohibiting lobbying by any of the industry’s partners, such as those “not-for-profit” organizations thinly disguised as public health initiatives, like the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World– an organization funded 100 percent by Phillip Morris.
We must also help prevent our youth from starting to use e-cigarettes and other tobacco products, and combat the harm suffered from long-term addiction, by introducing more restrictive regulation of menthol products in our state. Laws enacted here in Minnesota over a decade ago, including the Tobacco Modernization and Compliance Act of 2010, became a model for other states seeking to reduce the use of harmful tobacco. We must once again lead our country with swift, decisive action in the form of new legislation to eliminate what can only be described as the most powerful and manipulative tool in Big Tobacco’s arsenal – menthol.
David Hamlar MD, DDS
Skull Base Center
Department of Otolaryngology
Major General (bvt) (RET) David Hamlar attended Dental School at Howard University in Washington DC, where he was commissioned as an officer in the Public Health Service fulfilling a three-year commitment. He returned to school at The Ohio State University College of Medicine where he also completed his residency in Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery. It was during medical school that he joined the Ohio National Guard 121 st FW initially as an MSC officer, then dentist, and subsequently a physician. A fellowship in Facial Plastics and Reconstructive Surgery brought him to the University of Minnesota at which point he transferred to the Minnesota Air National Guard.
His University practice includes training medical students and residents as well as administrative responsibilities on the admissions committee and as a faculty advisor. His military career includes commander of the 133 rd AW Medical Group, State Air Surgeon, and in 2014 he was promoted and assumed the position role of Assistant Air Adjutant General. He is a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and was inducted into Omicron Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity in 2015 as he currently serves as Sire Archon. He serves on several Boards to include the Minnesota Military Family Foundation, Twin Cities Medical Society Foundation Board, and is Chair of the Twin Cities Chapter of the Red Cross. He is also involved with community organizations such as NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center.
He is a team physician for the Minnesota Wild, and medical consultant for the Gophers sports teams, Vikings and Timberwolves.
His loving and supportive family includes his Archousa June, daughter Jenna, son Devin and his wife Lindsay, granddaughters Grace and Gianna.