Racial politics could result in a ban on menthol in cigarettes.
Last week, civil rights groups and African American health organizations, including the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, the NAACP, and the National Medical Association, sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services demanding that the Food and Drug Administration ban menthol in cigarettes.
“The predatory marketing of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products must be stopped and we should all recognize this as a social justice issue, and one that disproportionately impacts youth and communities of color,” the letter stated.
Menthol is a chemical added to cigarettes that give them a mint-like flavor. Congress has banned all other flavors from being added to tobacco products.
The FDA has a deadline of April 29 to respond to the issue, the result of a lawsuit filed last year. The FDA decision will occur in the midst of a highly charged racial atmosphere driven by the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police shootings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo, and the growing Black Lives Matter protests.
Racial rhetoric is reflected in the arguments of groups like the AATCL.
In a recent program, the AATCL stated, “Let’s be clear. The tobacco … industry that started the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of African people to feed its greed. … The same industry that produces menthol cigarettes, e-cigarettes, blunt wrappers, little cigars and cigarillos has NEVER cared about the Black Community.”
Michelle Minton, a senior fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, thinks that rhetoric might win the day.
“Absolutely, it makes a ban more likely to happen,” Minton said. “It’s using the language of social justice. … There are some people who are cynically using this language in order to promote a political agenda.”
An estimated 16,000 African Americans die from lung cancer each year, and deaths due to smoking are about 18% higher for African Americans than whites, according to the University of California, San Francisco Smoking Cessation Leadership Center. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use of any racial group.
Civil rights organizations and anti-tobacco groups attribute the high rate of menthol cigarette use among African Americans to the advertising tactics of the tobacco industry.
“The industry … targeted the Black community with demeaning ads, exploitive imagery, racialized marketing, targeted pricing, community leader co-optation/payoffs, and more,” the AATCL stated.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids states on its website that “since the 1950s, the tobacco industry has targeted Black Americans with pervasive marketing of menthol cigarettes through sponsorship of community and music events, free sampling, magazine advertising and retail promotions.”
Minton disagrees that the advertising is necessarily why use of menthol cigarettes is higher among African Americans.
“It is fair to say that advertising of menthol cigarettes has been targeted to the black community,” Minton said. “Have blacks been manipulated into buying something harmful, or is it that blacks, for whatever reason, have a preference for menthol, and so advertising for menthol cigarettes has been targeted where it is most profitable?”