While overall smoking rates continue to decline, menthol’s hold on the market is undeniable. A recent study showed that while overall cigarette use declined by 26% over the past decade, 91% of that decline was due to non-menthol cigarettes. Led by The Center for Black Health & Equity, No Menthol Sunday is recognized every May in hopes of engaging the community in a discussion about the number one killer of Black Americans, tobacco.
On April 29, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that within the next 12 months, it will propose two rules to remove menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the marketplace. To prevent tobacco-related death and disease, the Lung Association has urged the end of menthol cigarette sales since 2011 and welcomed this announcement as an important step to address tobacco-related health disparities, particularly in the Black community.
Dr. David Tom Cooke, a thoracic surgeon at UC Davis and volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association, has first-hand experience with the consequences of menthol tobacco use on the Black community. “We look at nicotine-based products as an addiction that one would struggle to recover from just like any other addictive products. Menthol is a mint-flavored tobacco product that historically has been marketed disproportionately to Black American communities and communities of color by the tobacco industry. That has led to many people in those communities becoming addicted to tobacco products, including menthol, that are harmful to their health,” Dr. Cooke explained.
Evidence shows that targeted marketing and advertising to Black Americans works. Findings from a recent study demonstrate that nearly half of Black American menthol smokers in the study reported that they believed menthol cigarettes were less harmful than non-menthol cigarettes. John, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, experienced the prolific advertising and use of menthol cigarettes, and the deadly impacts of them, firsthand.
When John was growing up, menthol cigarettes were everywhere. “There are signs for menthol Newports everywhere, in the grocery store, on every corner. And it goes hand-in-hand with socializing. There is smoking at every BBQ and family gathering,” John said.
Unfortunately, he also knows first-hand what a devastating toll tobacco and menthol cigarettes can take on a family. Not only was he diagnosed with lung cancer himself, but his mother, brother, sister and daughter have all fallen victim to nicotine addiction.
Most recently, he lost his aunt to throat cancer caused by years of smoking. “My aunt Donna had been smoking menthol cigarettes since she was 16 years old. Before she passed, she kept telling everyone that she was getting better, but she continued to smoke during her chemo and radiation. Her voice was almost gone, and she kept smoking and she told me she could not stop. She was only 58 when she passed.”
“The narrative that menthol cigarettes are less harmful and easier to quit was fabricated by Big Tobacco to get more customers to buy menthol flavored tobacco products,” Dr. Cooke explained. “We now know that there are caustic aspects to menthol products that predispose the lung to additional damage more than other non-menthol-based tobacco products. This can lead to potentially higher levels of nicotine absorption as well as higher risk for cancer at a lower dose of those tobacco-based products.”
“When you look at actual menthol cigarette smokers, about 83% of menthol cigarette smokers are Black Americans with about 30% being Latino and only about 24% being white—even though white Americans are the highest level of tobacco consumers in the United States. So, it's clear that these products are marketed to a specific demographic.
Flavored tobacco products have long played an important role in youth starting to use tobacco products, and in the case of menthol, keeping people, particularly Black Americans, addicted. “The use of flavored agents to market tobacco products is in many ways insidious. The nature of flavored tobacco products tends to cater quite a bit to younger audiences. We see that in the vaping industry as well, as you have candy flavored product all marketed to younger folks,” said Dr. Cooke.
According to the Center for Black Health and Equity, “the tobacco industry has executed a calculated, menthol-centered strategy to establish a strong presence in African American communities, appropriate African American culture and create a dependency on tobacco funding. “Targeted marketing has been around for years and it’s not going away. There's a 2013 Rolling Stones cover showing Bruno Mars smoking a cigarette. And if you look back, Big Tobacco used Joe Camel, a cartoon figure, to appeal to younger people. Now with the new vaping industry, Big Tobacco is making a comeback and marketing toward younger folks.”
The FDA’s action to remove menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the marketplace has the potential to save millions of lives. Ending the sale of these products will stop kids from being lured by these flavors and becoming addicted and encourage tobacco users to quit, especially Black Americans. “We can work together to stamp out menthol cigarettes in the Black community and that would really give every American a chance to live a healthy life and to protect our youth and most vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Cooke.
There are many different resources and avenues to take to end a tobacco addiction. First, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider if you need help ending an addiction. The Lung Association stands ready to help all tobacco users quit, including menthol smokers, with proven effective quit smoking methods. We have called for an increase in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ‘Tips From Former Smokers’ campaign and state quit lines so people can speak with someone when they call 1-800-QUIT NOW to get help quitting.
Blog last updated: May 14, 2021