The tobacco industry marketed menthol cigarettes to Black communities through free samples, magazine advertising, sponsorship of community and music events, and even enlisted Black celebrities in ad campaigns. When a federal ban on additives was passed in 2009, the industry lobbied to keep menthol cigarettes legal.
A ban on menthol cigarettes could save lives in the African-American community. But the ban’s critics are right to say it would also lead to unconstitutional policing and criminal penalties.
Nearly 90% of smokers who identify as African Americans choose menthol cigarettes. This disproportionately high usage, unlike the decreases in cigarette use among White, Hispanic, and Asian smokers, does not stem from organic changes in preferences over time. Instead, it results from decades of high-dollar tobacco industry marketing targeted at Black communities and women.
The industry began promoting mentholated cigarettes to black consumers in the 1950s and ‘60s, partly because these products were cheaper than regular cigarettes. They could also be sold on street corners, where many black residents smoked. As the tobacco industry became increasingly concerned that their traditional markets were shrinking, they searched for new ones and found them in Black neighborhoods.
A ban on menthol cigarettes is long overdue, and it would save 92,000 to 238,000 lives in the United States each year. However, the public health community needs to go beyond this and offer well-funded smoking cessation programs that are culturally appropriate, accessible, and meet people where they live.
In 2021, a group of African-American tobacco control leaders and other organizations sued the FDA to force it to start the rule-making process for banning menthol cigarettes. The agency agreed, and a menthol ban is now in sight. But it will take years for the ban to become law, and the tobacco industry will likely sue to block it.
Many factors fueled the growth of menthol cigarettes target black community. Among the most important factors was the emergence of Black cultural events like concerts, often sponsored by menthol brands. These cultural events helped to popularize cigarette brands. Also, they created a sense of social identity among the black community, which made it easier for them to be targeted by tobacco companies.
Once tobacco companies started targeting the Black community with menthol cigarettes, they saw an opportunity to gain more market share in a highly profitable market segment. Tobacco company executives held focus groups to learn more about the preferences of Black smokers and found that they liked the idea of a fantastic, refreshing flavor. As a result, the tobacco industry began investing a substantial portion of their advertising budgets in TV ads that featured black models smoking mentholated cigarettes.
Tobacco companies also invested in developing new menthol-flavored cigarettes to appeal to a broader range of smokers, including young African Americans. These new menthol cigarettes were marketed as hip and modern, appealing to the younger generation looking for ways to fit in with the popular culture of the time.
Today, most smokers in the Black community choose menthol cigarettes over regular ones. Compared to other groups of the population, their fondness for menthol cigarettes has affected their health. As a result, bans on selling flavored cigarettes can significantly improve the health of Black communities and individuals.
From the ice cream truck-like vans that spewed free menthol cigarettes in urban Black communities to aggressively marketing and discounting their products in stores with high proportions of Black residents, tobacco companies used various tactics to promote menthol-flavored cigarettes in black communities. This strategy continues today and is why menthol cigarettes are consumed by almost 9 in 10 Black smokers.
The tobacco industry was aware that menthol-flavored cigarettes were beautiful to black consumers, and they deliberately targeted black communities with advertising for these products, according to documents uncovered in a lawsuit against several major tobacco corporations that included allegations of civil racketeering. These documents show that tobacco companies studied smokers to understand their preferences for menthol and manipulated menthol levels in their products to appeal to specific groups of smokers.
Tobacco companies have also tried to circumvent laws against flavored cigarettes by introducing new products not clearly labeled as mentholated, such as “concept flavors” with vague descriptions like Ice, Green, and Blue Mix that communicate a flavor profile but don’t say menthol. Whether through ad campaigns, packaging designs, or clever product engineering, the tobacco industry has sought to conceal the health harms associated with their product from Black consumers for decades.
The FDA should follow through on its promise to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and affirm that black lives matter by removing these addictive, dangerous products from the marketplace. The health and well-being of our Black communities, children, and youth depend on it.
The tobacco industry’s practice of selling menthol cigarettes in Black communities is one of the reasons that Black smokers have disproportionately high rates of smoking-related disease and death. The industry has never hidden this fact; menthol-specific marketing strategies have reinforced it for decades.
The Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and cigars has the potential to save lives, especially for the youth in Black communities who have been targeted with predatory marketing tactics for years. As the proposed ban undergoes a public comment period and aggressive tobacco industry opposition (which has successfully fought menthol restrictions at the local and state level) is expected, the voices of young Black leaders are helping to lead the way.