How Menthol Was Introduced to Black Smokers by the Tobacco Industry

Friday, August 18, 2023


In ads, menthol cigarettes were portrayed as fresh and modern. They were marketed to young Black people, women, and other ethnic and racial groups. The tobacco industry used predatory marketing to hook generations of Black Americans on smoking and menthols. It remained true even when the FDA began to move toward banning flavored tobacco products.

It’s Easier to Smoke

A new campaign targets menthol cigarettes as part of a larger effort to combat health disparities in Black communities. Local, state, and federal officials are taking steps to address how the tobacco industry targeted black Americans with menthol smoke. In California, for example, a bill banning the sale of menthol cigarettes passed in 2020 despite fierce resistance from the tobacco industry. Research shows that Black people smoke more menthol cigarettes than other population groups. In addition, they have a harder time quitting smoking. It may be because they have less access to smoking cessation programs, higher stress levels and limited no-smoking policies in public places. They also have a higher tolerance for the taste of menthol cigarettes.

Historically, the tobacco industry used various marketing tactics to target Black consumers. For instance, they offer free cigarette samples and feature menthol ads in popular Black periodicals. They even hired influencers in the community – such as barbers and bellhops – to give out free menthol cigarettes to their customers. The tobacco industry knew that menthol made it easier to smoke cigarettes and used it as a recruiting tool for young Black smokers. The menthol in cigarettes is added to mask the harshness of the smoke, making them more appealing to novice smokers. It has also been shown to make nicotine more addictive, and it can be abused similarly to alcohol or other drugs.

It’s a Social Lubricant

For decades, the tobacco industry has used menthol in its marketing strategies to target Black communities. Their advertising portrayed mentholated cigarettes as trendy, healthy and refreshing. They marketed them in African-American-owned stores and publications and sponsored events like jazz concerts and hip-hop festivals. They recruited African American musicians and sports stars to endorse their products. In his book Pushing Cool, author Keith Wailoo describes how menthol was the key to Big Tobacco’s success in Black America. He says that after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report highlighting the harmful effects of smoking, the tobacco industry sought to reach new markets in minority communities. It included targeting Black neighborhoods with subway, billboard and store advertisements. They also recruited African American professional athletes and singers to shill for their brands and gave out free cigarettes in the communities they targeted.

These advertisements evoked a sense of pride and community, portraying smokers as brave and daring. They also tapped into popular culture, using images and slogans that echoed the Black Power movement of the 1970s and the style of Blaxploitation films. Eventually, tobacco companies moved to multi-race ads featuring white models alongside Black ones. Local and state governments have tried to limit the sale of mentholated tobacco products, but the industry has fought them on every front. It has used the false narrative that a ban on menthol will lead to increased racial profiling by law enforcement, and it has also promoted stories that the ban will harm communities of color.

Menthol is a Flavoring

The tobacco industry has long sought to make its products palatable. From the earliest days of smoking and chewing tobacco, sugar, licorice, and other additives were added to the ingredients to make the products more enjoyable. These additives, flavorings, and the use of menthol made it easier for smokers to become addicted. Lincoln Mondy, the director of a new documentary that looks at the effects of menthol cigarettes on black communities, says that his research revealed a 50-year campaign by big tobacco companies to saturate black neighborhoods with menthol. Tobacco companies bought disproportionate ad space in black magazines and newspapers and featured black musicians, actors, and professional athletes. The campaigns were designed to appeal to young blacks and portrayed menthols as hip, healthy, and refreshing. The use of menthol in cigarette advertising has been linked to increased smoking initiation and progression and reduced cessation efforts. Its anesthetic properties mitigate the harshness of the smoke and mask unpleasant sensations in the mouth and throat, making it easier for smokers to begin using a product and progress to regular use. The FDA is attempting to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars, citing their harmful impact on black communities.

It’s cheaper

As the menthol industry faces a possible product ban, experts are rallying a grassroots movement to combat the racialization of smoking. A coalition of community-based organizations, including the Colorado Black Health Collaborative (CBHC), are leading educational campaigns on the grim history of menthols. The CPHP Policy + System Change Network has supported the work of CBHC by providing technical assistance through research and facilitation. During the tobacco industry’s heyday, it aimed its marketing efforts at Black neighborhoods with billboards and ads in African-American-centric magazines. Companies also hired local influencers – like barbers, bellhops, and numbers runners – to hand out free menthol cigarettes. This strategy helped them build markets surreptitiously. The menthol flavoring added to cigarettes makes them more addictive and masks the harshness of the smoke, making it easier to take a drag. As a result, it’s harder for smokers to quit. The use of menthol in cigarettes is a form of racialization, and the industry uses it to target communities of color. The use of menthol is especially prevalent among young people and those from lower-income backgrounds. In addition to menthol, the tobacco industry uses a variety of additives and flavors – such as sugar, licorice, and molasses – to make their products more appealing to consumers. The CDC has warned that these ingredients can harm users’ health.

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