Big tobacco companies got Black Americans hooked on menthol cigarettes using clever marketing and low prices that left some with lifelong and fatal respiratory infections and cancer.
Some 85 percent of Black smokers use Newport, Kool and other menthol brands that are easier to become addicted to and harder to quit than plain tobacco, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
For many Black smokers, the decision to start smoking menthol cigarettes was not a conscious one. Little was known of Big Tobacco’s aggressive marketing to Black Americans, and about the peer influence that pushed millions to stick by the cigarettes.
Tobacco manufacturers went to great lengths to target African-Americans using point-of-sale marketing, price discounts, branding, and traditional advertising avenues.
Using research, they exploited Black Americans’ preference for menthol cigarettes to invest in pushing this type of addictive brand to Black youth.
Internal industry document showed that several companies, including Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, used such marketing efforts.
“Marlboro would probably have a very difficult time getting anywhere in the young black market. The odds against it there are heavy. Young blacks have found their thing, and it’s menthol in general and Kool in particular,” according to a 1974 Phillip Morris report.
“Since younger adult Blacks overwhelmingly prefer menthol cigarettes, continued emphasis on Salem within the Black market is recommended,” said company founder RJ Reynolds. “Salem is already positioned against younger adults. With an emphasis on the younger adult Black market, Salem may be able to provide an alternative to Newport and capitalize on Kool’s decline.”
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Black smokers smoke less than white, but more die of heart attacks, strokes and other causes linked to tobacco use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Overall, 39 percent of youth and 81 percent of Black youth prefer menthol cigarettes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Population Assessment Tobacco and Health study.
Menthol is added to cigarettes by manufacturers to create a cooling sensation that reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke. Menthol also has bronchodilatory properties, allowing deeper penetration of smoke into the lungs.
The cooling sensation and reduced harshness of mentholated smoke lead consumers to perceive those cigarettes as posing a lesser health risk compared with non-mentholated cigarettes.
But by making cigarettes smoother, cooler, and easier to inhale, tobacco companies have created a product that has higher addiction potential and is harder to quit than non-mentholated cigarettes.
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The Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the predatory marketing strategies towards Black people by cigarette manufacturers and put new pressure on Congress and the White House to reduce racial health disparities.
President Joe Biden’s administration is now looking into a proposed Federal ban on menthol cigarettes, following years of campaigning by public health experts and civil rights activists to outlaw them.
The proposed ban would affect more than a third of U.S. cigarette purchases.