In 2009, then-president Obama signed a law that banned all flavored cigarettes — except for menthol, a chemical compound that masks the harshness of tobacco and, as the CDC warns, makes it harder to quit. Menthol cigarettes have disproportionately plagued black communities for decades, and although the law was designed to reduce the number of young people taking up smoking, Big Tobacco successfully lobbied to remove menthol from the ban.
In effect, black communities were left out of an effort to “rectify” decades of predatory marketing by tobacco companies. And today, as leaders move to take action on e-cigarettes, it looks like the health of my community could once again be traded for political expediency.
From an early age, I was hyperaware of how race impacted outcomes and circumstances, even when it came to smoking. I saw my black family smoke menthols exclusively, while my white family and friends smoked nonmenthol cigarettes and used chewing tobacco. I started noticing more messages, like Dave Chappelle’s menthol jokes, emphasizing that, apparently, black people just really loved their menthols.
Eventually, I set out to answer the question I’d always been curious about — why is menthol so ingrained in black culture? What I found was a strategic fifty-plus-year campaign by Big Tobacco targeting black people with menthol cigarettes. In my short film documenting this campaign, Black Lives / Black Lungs, a renowned tobacco researcher, Phillip Gardiner, described the cross-sector efforts to transform menthol cigarettes into a “black cigarette” as one of the greatest marketing coups of the 20th century.
Menthol is a flavor, just like cotton candy, peach, and mango. Last year, tobacco giant Altria announced a $12.8 billion deal that gave them a 35% stake in Juul Labs, which has grasped an estimated 75% of the e-cigarette market thanks in part to its galaxy of fruity flavors. In a blink of an eye, Big Tobacco got even bigger — and back into the flavored nicotine business.
But recently, there have been over 1,080 cases of lung injury reported across the country connected to vaping, and even as preliminary findings show a significant portion of these illnesses are related to do-it-yourself THC cartridges, it has brought fresh political focus on the virtually unregulated market for e-cigarettes. In response to the spate of vaping-related illnesses, Michigan and New York banned all flavored e-cigarettes. Again, menthol was excluded.
The tobacco industry is banking on regulators and political leaders viewing traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes as opposites — two different industries that don’t require similar regulation. But the history and trajectory of menthol cigarettes in the United States tell a different story.
As I’ve held screenings of my film, the question I get most frequently is: “Didn’t the tobacco industry target everyone?” The answer is, yes, of course, it did. But the evidence proves the targeting of the black community has been uniquely damaging.
In 1953, only 5% of black smokers used menthol cigarettes. The tactics Big Tobacco used to increase this number included (but was certainly not limited to) littering black neighborhoods with free menthol cigarettes, making menthols cheaper in our neighborhoods, purchasing 10 times more advertising in black communities, and a web of intertwined relationships between the tobacco industry and black civil rights organizations. It worked. Today, nearly 85% of black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to just 29% of white smokers.
Fortunately, localities around the country have noted the research outlining how flavors in tobacco products (whether in cigarettes or e-cigarettes) are a detriment to public health. San Francisco and St. Paul, Minnesota, have banned the sale of menthol cigarettes, and there are currently two bills before the New York City Council. The first bill would restrict the sale of menthol-, mint-, and wintergreen-flavored tobacco products, and the second would prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco responded, not surprisingly, by reportedly working with black pastors in New York City and elected officials in Harlem to fight the ban.
One of the many black organizations the tobacco industry has ties with is the National Action Network, civil rights leader Al Sharpton’s organization. When a menthol cigarette ban was up for a vote in San Francisco, Sharpton flew to the Bay Area to speak at black churches and radio shows opposing the ban.
Sharpton and other black leaders who’ve received money from tobacco companies allege that menthol bans are inherently racist. Mail campaigns, advertising dollars, and black spokespeople are used to argue that menthol bans would increase police brutality. The tobacco industry hopes its intended targets, black people, will be so anxious that they’ll look past the actual logistics of a menthol ban. Menthol bans target the point of sale. Retailers who sell menthol risk losing their licenses and facing fines, but individuals possessing or smoking menthol cigarettes do not face punishment. Big Tobacco is cashing in on the black community’s historical and valid anxiety toward police without telling the whole truth.
Investing in black leaders and institutions — and then cashing in on those relationships by decrying menthol bans as inherently racist — is one of Big Tobacco’s central strategies. Altria’s stake in Juul and the installation of its tobacco industry executive as Juul’s CEO is a startling sign that Big Tobacco’s playbook is being dusted off and rebranded. First, the company secured the services of Ben Jealous, a former head of the NAACP. Then, it brought in a board member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Chaka Burgess, and a top Obama civil rights liaison, Heather Foster.
Shortly after this hiring spree, the New York Times reported that Juul was giving $7.5 million to Meharry Medical College, a historically black institution. Black student leaders at Meharry Medical College invited me to their campus for a town hall focused on Juul’s gift and Meharry’s plans to research vaping with the funds. Students at the town hall expressed their disappointment that their medical school, which has a policy of not accepting tobacco industry funds, would be partnering with Juul. The gift was a tactic we’ve unfortunately seen before. Juul is attempting to inoculate its profit margins from upcoming regulation and using black institutions as cover.
Legislation, lobbying, and an incredibly successful campaign by Big Tobacco has resulted in the public perceiving menthol as a separate beast: a flavor that can’t possibly be regulated like all other flavors. But separating e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes in regulation as Big Tobacco coalesce power, profits, and personnel around both products is a losing battle.
Banning e-cigarette flavors while ignoring the damming evidence against menthol cigarettes and their impact on black people is a disgraceful omission. For decades, there was a carefully crafted campaign to infiltrate the black community with menthol cigarettes, in broad daylight with no oversight — and it worked.
Banning some flavors of tobacco products is not enough. It’s a Band-Aid solution, and if political leaders are genuinely working with public health goals in mind, then banning menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes is the clear answer. Only then can we send the message that Big Tobacco no longer has unfettered access to devastate entire communities.