When I was growing up as a Black girl in Washington, D.C., everyone around me smoked Kool or Salem menthol cigarettes. I remember that many people saw it as, “not so bad.” They thought since menthol cigarettes created a cooling sensation, that it wasn’t as unhealthy. I smoked cigarettes as well, but thankfully I didn’t smoke menthols and was able to quit about 25 years ago.
Now we know better. Big Tobacco markets menthol cigarettes specifically to communities of color and very specifically to Black Americans. As a result, 81% of Black Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, up drastically from 10% of Black Americans who smoked menthols in the 1950s before this targeted marketing started. Despite historically starting later and smoking fewer cigarettes per day than white Americans, Black Americans are 6% more likely to be diagnosed with and 17% more likely to die from a tobacco-related cancer. Black men are also 15% more likely to develop and 18% more likely to die from lung cancer than their white counterparts. Smoking directly contributes to the three leading causes of death among African Americans—heart disease, cancer and stroke—and causes 45,000 African American deaths every year.
Finally, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed ending the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
While my community is significantly impacted by menthol cigarettes, some in my community may also be skeptical of this action, so it is critical for Black Americans to work together to advance these rules.
Ending the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars will help advance health equity. Gaining support for this effort will need to be done by using multiple approaches, and one of those approaches is creating strategic alliances. As a part of my work with the American Lung Association, I have been meeting with the Black Leaders Against Tobacco Injustice, a group comprised of government, health and church leaders who came together to fight against the predatory practices of the tobacco industry. My community is heavily faith-based. If you want to talk to my community, you must go through the churches. It is collaborations like this that will help end the sale of menthol cigarettes, improve health of our community and save lives.
Since the FDA released the proposed rules, and in the recent listening sessions, there were several organizations that spoke up in opposition. They argue that ending the sale of menthol cigarettes will create a black market and increase police violence on Black Americans. These claims are decades-long practices by the tobacco industry to try to stall the advancement of proven tobacco control policies. The FDA has tools at its disposal to mitigate any illicit sales that do happen, including putting in place a Track and Trace system for tobacco products. Ending the sale of menthol cigarettes is about improving the lives of Black Americans, not penalizing the individual. We cannot continue to fall for Big Tobacco’s lies.
As a result of Big Tobacco’s rhetoric and deep pockets, very notable organizations have voiced their opposition to these lifesaving rules. Before falling for these claims, it is important to investigate if they currently or previously have taken tobacco industry money. Those that do must be questioned.
I know that smoking is still way too common in my community, but most Black Americans who smoke want to quit. In fact, three in four Black individuals who smoke want to quit smoking; yet are typically less successful than other populations in their quit attempts. There are multiple reasons for this, but the menthol in cigarettes and a lack of access to culturally competent smoking cessation treatment and resources both play a part. Removing menthol cigarettes from the market will be a pivotal moment to motivate people to quit for good and it’s in all of our best interests for federal, state and local governments and others to make culturally competent smoking cessation services available for menthol smokers when these rules take effect. The American Lung Association is already offering proven resources and is ready to support those who want to quit smoking at Lung.org.
I call on my community to come together to tell the FDA to end the sales of all menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars. We believe that this could be the most dramatic action to impact Black health and save lives in our community.
Blog last updated: January 17, 2023