By Peter Kates
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed new rules to ban the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes. But with the dangers of smoking well-known, why the current focus on these specific tobacco products? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the tobacco industry targets Black Americans with menthol cigarette marketing through advertising, giveaways, special pricing, lifestyle branding, and event sponsorships of rap, hip-hop, and jazz artists. The goal is to get Black young people addicted so they become customers for life.
“Nobody inhales cigarette smoke for the first time and thinks it feels good,” says Gina Cuyler, MD, FACP, vice president of health equity and community investments at Univera Healthcare. “That’s why tobacco companies seek to take the harsh edge off that initial experience so first-timers will continue to sample the product and get hooked.” The nicotine in cigarettes is highly addictive, and adding menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat and airways, making the smoke feel easier to inhale.
Menthol is a chemical compound found naturally in peppermint and other similar plants. According to the CDC, some research shows that menthol cigarettes may be more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes because menthol can change how the brain registers sensations of taste and pain.
So how successful are marketing efforts targeting Black Americans? More than 70 percent of Black young people ages 12 to 17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes, and Black adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups. In 2019 and 2020, sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes made up 37 percent of all cigarette sales in the U.S.—the highest proportion in 55 years. The CDC estimates 40 percent of excess deaths from menthol cigarette smoking in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018 were among Black Americans, despite Black Americans comprising only about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Black Americans ages 18 to 49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than White Americans, and Black Americans ages 35 to 64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than White Americans.
“Projections from the U.S. Census Bureau show the death rate for Black Americans is generally higher than White Americans for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, and diabetes,” says Cuyler. “Smoking contributes to each of those conditions.”
Evidence from other countries supports the public health benefits of banning menthol cigarettes. Prohibiting menthol cigarette sales in Ontario, Canada in 2017 resulted in high rates of quit attempts and successes.
“We need to educate the public, especially people of color, about tobacco companies’ efforts to create nicotine addicts in our Black communities,” advises Cuyler. “All young people deserve to live tobacco-free lives!”
The New York State Smokers’ Quitline offers proven resources to help people who want to quit smoking. Learn more at https://www.nysmokefree.com.
Peter Kates is vice president of communications at Univera Healthcare.