By LaTrisha Vetaw, Northpoint Health & Wellness Center
Black History month is a time to celebrate all we have done to contribute to our country and our world, to reflect on the full range of African-American achievements in history, and to act to ensure more opportunities for today’s and tomorrow’s generations to reach their full potential.
As a healthcare professional, I believe there is a part of our history that we need to relegate to our past: our association with menthol tobacco.
In some neighborhoods, Kool and Newport are in your face, nearly everywhere you go. That familiar blue-green color is on the walls and windows of corner stores, on billboards, and in the cigarette butt litter on the streets.
“We don’t smoke that s_ _ _. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black and stupid.” R.J. Reynolds Executive
For decades, the tobacco industry has marketed menthol cigarettes specifically to African-American people. They advertised in Black publications, placed store and outdoor advertising in Black neighborhoods, and sponsored music and sporting events, they made donations to Black community organizations. All this was revealed to be part of a deliberate targeted marketing strategy during the tobacco trials of the 1990s.
Here’s a brief glimpse into those documents that shows how Big Tobacco has viewed the Black community:
“Blacks tend to buy less things to improve themselves, they appear less concerned about health-related issues (i.e. Blacks don’t necessarily identify with the motivations of the “Concerned” and “Moderation” segments) and are more prone to buy on impulse.” R.J.Reynolds Marketing Research Report: Analysis of the MDD Segmentation Study among Black Smokers, 1982
“The physical and psychological deprivation that occurred during and after slavery gave rise to certain wants and needs which, even today, affect Black consumer behavior. Some of those wants and needs include stronger than average desires for the following:
• Instant gratification
• Respectful recognition
• Status and prestige
• Acceptance or belonging
• Safety and security
• Family life that is whole, complete and happy
Four of these areas merit further discussion in terms of their applicability to cigarette buying habits.
In order to successfully communicate product marketing messages to Blacks, advertisers must have an understanding and sensitivity towards the psychographic importance of targeted advertising campaigns.” R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company New Menthol Cigarette Introduction, 1990
Today, there are a lot of restrictions on how companies can promote cigarettes. They can’t advertise on television or use cartoon characters that appeal to kids. But targeted advertising continues on billboards in Black neighborhoods, signage in shops frequented by Black people and in Black magazines. Look at these ads for Newport from the 1980s and today – it’s clear not much has changed.
Menthol’s Unique Dangers and Disparate Impact on the African-American Community
So what makes menthol any different from other tobacco? It’s simple. Research shows adding menthol to cigarettes makes them easier to smoke; you don’t have that harsh burn from regular tobacco. But there’s more: studies also show that menthol makes it easier for people, including young people, to start smoking and makes it harder to quit.
African-Americans smoke at higher rates, have higher incidence of cancer and heart disease from smoking, and worse outcomes from those diseases than the general population. African-Americans are more than 30 percent more likely to die of lung cancer than whites. In fact, African-Americans have the highest death rates and shortest survival rates from most cancers. We are also 53 percent more likely to die of heart disease. Tobacco plays a big role in these disturbing disparities.
Some say that this is a personal choice issue. People choose to smoke, and if they want to smoke menthol, that’s their prerogative. But I challenge you to take a step back and take a bigger view: when a billion-dollar industry targets a our community with a product that is addictive and deadly, and works for decades to ingrain the product into our community’s culture, is this really about free choice?
We can’t address the disparate harms of tobacco in the African-American community without taking on menthol. But we can if we do. Research indicates that if menthol were banned in the United States, 47 percent of African-American menthol smokers would quit smoking. In Minnesota, a recent survey shows African-American smokers believe a menthol ban would help them quit smoking and that they would be twice as likely to try to quit as white smokers.
Now consider this: menthol was the only flavor exempted from a federal ban on flavored cigarettes when the FDA took tobacco over in 2009.
Conversations about reducing menthol’s devastating impact in our community are underway in Minnesota. These conversations are led by members of our community with input from the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, the Minnesota Department of Health and other local public health advocates.
We know menthol plays a huge role in creating and sustaining addiction. We know the overwhelming majority of African Americans who smoke cigarettes smoke menthol. We know that many African-American smokers would quit if menthol was banned. It’s time we put this destructive and dangerous relic from our history in our collective past.
LaTrisha Vetaw is a Cancer survivor and Policy and Social Impact Manager at Northpoint Health & Wellness Center