On Thursday, the FDA announced that it plans to ban what it calls “the last allowable flavor” in cigarettes: menthols. The plan still needs to be finalized and opened for public comment. Proponents of the idea say it’s been a long time coming, especially because for half a century, menthol cigarettes disproportionately affected Black communities. According to the FDA, nearly 19 million people in the U.S. smoke menthol cigarettes, but Black people make up 85% of those users.
It might take years for this to be enacted at a federal level, says Phillip Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. To protect the Black community, he says local and state governments will have to enact their own bans.
The history of big tobacco targeting Black communities
According to Gardiner, Black communities were singled out starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company, organized focus groups and found that cigarette advertisements resonated more with Black smokers than with white smokers. After that discovery, more resources were dedicated to appeal to them.
He says tobacco companies also used images of Black athletes such as baseball players Elston Howard, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays in advertisements. They donated money to Black organizations like the NAACP, HBCUs, as well as arts groups such as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
“In 1950, less than 10% of Black smokers smoked menthol cigarettes. Today, the numbers are 85% of African American adults and 94% of African American youth … smoke menthol cigarettes. These were jammed down our throat essentially.”
Why menthols are addictive
Gardiner notes that the menthol in cigarettes numbs the mouth and throat, which allows for deeper inhalation.
“The deeper you inhale, the more toxins and nicotine you take in. The more toxins and nicotine you take in, the more addicted you become. The more addicted you become, it's harder to quit.”
He says addiction to menthol cigarettes has led to a disproportionate rate of tobacco-related diseases in the Black community. That includes lung cancer, heart attacks, and stroke.
Gardiner says that predominantly Black communities are also more likely to be targeted for menthol cigarette advertisements, and that in some neighborhoods, the product itself is cheaper.
Although there was an earlier ban on other flavored cigarettes through the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, Gardiner says he’s confused as to why it’s taken so long to enact another ban on menthols.
“The tobacco market in the United States is somewhere in the neighborhood of $220 billion. … Menthol is 36% of that market. We're talking about a $1 billion industry. You can get rid of the vanilla cigarettes. You can get rid of strawberry cigarettes. You can get rid of all of that. That didn't mean nothing. This is about the benjamins.”