The Strange History of Menthol Cigarettes, African-American Groups—and John Boehner

Sep 16 2016

The Strange History of Menthol Cigarettes, African-American Groups—and John Boehner

September 16th, 2016

On Tuesday, activists from the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCL) held a press conference where they appealed to President Obama to ban menthol cigarettes.

According to the organization, 88 percent of black adult smokers and 95 percent of black youth smokers report smoking menthol-flavored cigarettes, and “tobacco use remains the number one preventable cause of death for African Americans, claiming more than 45,000 lives annually.”

They attribute the high incidence of smoking menthols in the black community to “decades of geographically racialized targeting of mentholated tobacco products by the tobacco industry.”

Although the New York Times article about the appeal to Obama cites the 45,000 figure too, that data is actually from 1998 (more recent exact figures weren’t available). But the CDC agrees that tobacco remains the number one preventable cause of death for African Americans. And the idea of racial targeting in menthol advertising is backed up, too.

The CDC website states:

“Historically, the marketing and promotion of menthol cigarettes have been targeted heavily toward African Americans through culturally tailored advertising images and messages…Nearly 9 of every 10 African American smokers (88.5%) aged 12 years and older prefer menthol cigarettes. Menthol in cigarettes is thought to make harmful chemicals more easily absorbed in the body, likely because menthol makes it easier to inhale cigarette smoke. Some research shows that menthol cigarettes may be more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes.”

In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act authorized the FDA to regulate tobacco products. It banned “flavors” in cigarettes because of their potential appeal to young smokers. But due to heavy lobbying from tobacco companies, menthol was given an exception.

In July 2013, after complaints from public health groups, the FDA commissioned reports on whether menthol should be restricted or banned (as it is in the European Union). The reports were made. But then nothing happened.

That’s in part because Reynolds (which bought Lorillard, the maker of the nation’s number one menthol cigarette, Newport, in 2015) sued the FDA over a report that indicated that the minty, throat-numbing menthols were, in fact, extra harmful.

The cigarette company lost on appeal in January 2016. By then, four members of the FDA’s tobacco products advisory panel had either resigned or were removed, following the previous court ruling in favor of Reynolds.

The tobacco lobby is obviously incredibly powerful and has close ties to Washington.

In fact, just yesterday, former House Speaker John Boehner, reportedly a heavy smoker, announced his decision to join the board of Reynolds, which is based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

For these reasons, the AATCL’s appeal to president Obama is clearly important.

But unfortunately, included in its appeal is a request to ban all “flavored tobacco products” including “e-cigarettes.” (Though e-cigarettes do not have tobacco in them, they are characterized by the FDA as “tobacco products”).

As The Influence has reported, e-cigarettes are likely a lot safer than combustible products (which involve inhaling smoke), and could be an especially important harm reduction tactic in the very communities that suffer disproportionately from cigarette-related illnesses—poor people, people with mental illness, and black people.

A new study saying that an increase in prevalence in e-cigarettes has correlated with an increase in people quitting smoking successfully even came out the same day as the AATCL press release.

Plus, given the well-documented failures of drug prohibition, it’s unlikely that banning a substance that people like to use will do much besides create an illicit, potentially more dangerous market for it.

But it feels a little strange to say that, when it’s the same argument that Big Tobacco has been making for years to try to preserve cigarette sales.

For example, John Dixon, a police chief and past president of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), which receives funding from Reynolds, said that he thought banning menthols would harm “the minority community, because the majority of menthol smokers are minorities.” He added that “prohibitions cause a whole other host of problems,” including an added “burden on law enforcement.”

That’s rich! Suddenly, when it comes to menthol cigarettes, cops understand the ineffectiveness and dangers of prohibition!

It would be nice to hear them say that about marijuana, opioids, and cocaine.

But when it comes to cigarettes, everything is upside-down: The least likely people seem to transform into anti-racist allies. And that’s not new. In 2009, for example, Lorillard posted ads in the black press that proclaimed in bold writing: “Freedom of Choice for Grown Folks.” The ads said:

“Some self-appointed activists have proposed a legislative ban on menthol cigarettes in a misguided effort to force people to quit smoking by limiting their choices…The history of African Americans in this country has been one of fighting against paternalistic limitations and for freedoms.’’

And in 1987, an article ghost-written by a Reynolds representative in the National Black Monitor even compared the discrimination faced by black people to that faced by the tobacco industry.

While racial minorities no longer face “the systematized injustice they once did,’’ the article declared, “relentless discrimination still rages unabashedly on a cross-country scope against another group of targets —the tobacco industry and 50 million private citizens who smoke.’’

The tobacco industry has a long history of courting black organizations, donating millions to black history museums, the United Negro College fund, and the NAACP.

But just this past July, the NAACP voted to support efforts at the state and local level to restrict the sale of menthol cigarettes, in what The New York Times called “a drastic departure from the past.”

In the past, the NAACP has received funding from the tobacco industry, including Reynolds. A spokesman for the NAACP told the New York Times that at present “the group receives no funding from the tobacco industry.”

The black community is “quitting” Big Tobacco. Let’s get the government to quit them too.

Sarah Beller is an associate editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @SarahLBeller.