In April, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced two proposed rules to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. With more than 18.9 million people currently smoking menthols, this change could save millions of lives. First added to tobacco in the 1920s, menthol reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke and the irritation from nicotine, which is part of the reason why menthol cigarettes may be more addictive. Some marketing messages have even suggested that menthol cigarettes offer health benefits, though it is well known that not only is this false, but the minty taste and odor can mask the early warning symptoms of smoking-induced respiratory problems. Flavored cigars pose a similar risk to public health and health equity: close to half of youth cigar smokers use flavored cigars and youth use of cigars among Black students is higher than other races and ethnicities.
At the Lung Association, we understand first-hand the impact that menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars have had. We asked some of our colleagues to share their personal experiences:
Deb Brown, Chief Mission Officer:
“As a little girl, I was fortunate to live five houses away from my grandparents, so I spent a lot of time with them. Grandpa was always working on something around the house, and he would give my siblings and I a chance to assist him. My grandpa always had a sweet Tiparillo in his hand or mouth. He never smoked cigarettes, only the flavored cigars which he liked because of the sweet flavor. Little did I know at the time that this once vibrant man would develop COPD because of this tobacco addiction. His quality of life took a dramatic turn until he eventually died from this horrible disease. I realize there are many other families that have lost their loved ones because of an addiction to flavored cigars and other tobacco products. We have an opportunity today to stop access to flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes. No more individuals should have to lose a loved one because of an addiction to flavored cigars or menthol cigarettes.”
Kristina Hamilton, Director of Advocacy for Illinois and Iowa:
“My father and paternal grandmother smoked menthol cigarettes for a combined 50+ years. In my dad’s predominantly Black social circles, everyone who smoked around him used menthols. My dad never smoked around me, but I remember often smelling cigarette smoke on him. I once asked him why he smoked and when he’d quit. He was finally able to quit cold turkey when I was in college, and has stayed tobacco free since. My grandmother was also thankfully able to quit after developing chronic conditions, including heart disease.
“When I was in graduate school, due to my internship at the Lung Association, I focused some of my research on menthol cigarettes. My policy analysis was on why the FDA should end their sale. I am hopeful and excited about the FDA’s announcement. I am moved by the fact that my now 81-year-old grandmother is alive to see her government take a bold step to help prevent the disease and death caused by menthol cigarettes.”
Kaitlyn Lord, National Director of Donor Relations:
“I first got involved with the Lung Association because my maternal grandmother died after being diagnosed at the end of her life with Stage IV Lung Cancer. She smoked cigarettes for 30+ years, before realizing in the mid-70’s the negative impact they would have on her recently born grandchildren. Unfortunately, due to her dementia we had a difficult time getting her to see a doctor regularly, and by the time her lungs were scanned, it was already too late to act against the cancer, which of course was a direct result of her decades of smoking.
“Big Tobacco’s CENTURY old grip on Americans, especially our friends in marginalized communities, is devastating. The elimination of menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco being sold in the US is PARAMOUNT to American’s living healthier lives, and I believe it is imperative the FDA takes steps to stop the sale!”
Joy Meyer, National Vice President of Health Promotions:
“My extended family has a long history of tobacco use with two uncles and an aunt passing away due to lung disease. I began using tobacco at the age of 18 while in college. Though I have used many brands, Newports were my menthol brand of choice. So little was known about menthol in those days. In fact, I had some family members and friends that advised me to use menthol cigarettes when I had a respiratory illness because it was thought to be therapeutic and would soothe my throat. I am hopeful that these new rules will stop the misinformation about menthol products.”
Tiffany Nichols, Director of Advocacy for Indiana:
“I remember family gatherings where the air would be filled with menthol smoke, the smell of good soul food and laughter. These are bittersweet memories because us children had no say in breathing in the harmful secondhand smoke. Though most of my cousins have dodged the ‘menthol bullet,’ unfortunately, a handful picked up the deadly addiction. Though smoking in the house is no longer common, it scares me to watch my cousins ingest these harmful toxins.
“Of my mother’s eleven siblings, sadly, five of them died prematurely because of their menthol cigarette addiction. An addiction so strong that none of them successfully quit smoking even though they witnessed their father die from lung cancer at only 58 years old. Must I stand idly by while future generations pick up menthol flavored products given the fact that they are easy to start and harder to quit?”
Nick Torres, Director of Advocacy for Colorado, Utah and Wyoming:
“When my grandparents moved from Texas to Ohio, they became one of the first Mexican families in town. For many years, my grandfather worked several blue-collar jobs alongside many Black workers who moved to the area during the Great Migration. They had a lot in common – including their smoking habits. My grandfather told me that his work friends would often share cigarettes, and they were most frequently menthol and roll-your-own varieties. This was in the 1950s and early 1960s when the tobacco industry was beginning to invest a lot of money into the menthol market. Though he was not brand-loyal, he did smoke a lot of menthols because, for him, price was the driving factor in picking a cigarette. Knowing now that the tobacco industry often targets lower-income communities with pricing and couponing, it makes sense.
“My grandfather shared with me recently that his grandchildren were his motivation to quit smoking a little over 30 years ago. As a new father myself, I am so incredibly grateful that he did. He turns 87 this year, and it was so special when I introduced him to my son, his first great-grandson.”
Blog last updated: July 27, 2022