Phillip Gardiner started smoking after he quit his college basketball team. He soon switched from Winstons, then the country’s topselling brand, to Kool menthols.
“It was cool to smoke Kools,” Gardiner explains.
Over the more than 40 years since Gardiner – who is black – opted for Kools, menthol cigarettes have become increasingly popular with African-American smokers.
Today, black smokers are four times more likely to choose menthols than white smokers. (Gardiner quit smoking long ago.) By 2005, half of black smokers smoked Newports, the most popular menthol brand.
Gardiner, a scientist with the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program at the University of California Osmokerffice of the President, calls this the “African-Americanization of menthol cigarette use.” Once a niche product smoked mainly by women, menthols became the cigarette of choice for black smokers thanks in part to targeted marketing in urban centers and in publications aimed at black readers.
Now the Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes, fueling a debate about how such a move would impact African Americans. The FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee has been reviewing the health effects of menthol cigarettes for the past year and is due to submit its final report and recommendations to the agency any day. The FDA usually, but not always, goes along with its advisory panels. However, Lorillard, maker of Newports, and R.J. Reynolds, maker of Kools, filed a lawsuit Feb. 25 to block the committee’s recommendations. The suit alleges that the committee can’t provide fair advice because three members have conflicts of interest.
Drafts of a few chapters posted online recently provide a preview of the panel’s report: While there is insufficient evidence to conclude that menthol smokers are more likely to be diagnosed with tobacco-caused diseases than non-menthol smokers, “the evidence is sufficient to conclude that it is biological(ly) plausible that menthol makes cigarette smoking more addictive.”
The latest draft chapter, posted Monday in advance of the panel’s meeting Thursday and Friday, cites a 2010 report that found African Americans across-the-board-no matter their income, age, sex, marital status, region, education, age they started or length of time smoking-are more likely to smoke menthols than any other racial or ethnic group.
Newports are the lifeblood of Lorillard, the oldest U.S. tobacco company, which has framed the debate as a civil rights issue. One Lorillard ad, with a photo of an African-American woman, bears the headline “Freedom of Choice for Grown-ups” and states “informed grown-ups who decide to smoke should have the freedom to choose menthol cigarettes.”
In op-ed pieces published on a number of websites over the past few months, Jessie Lee, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Malik Aziz, national chair of the National Black Police Association, argue that a menthol cigarette ban would lead to an illegal market.
Meanwhile, John Payton, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, has been vocal in his support of a ban. Lorillard’s argument that smokers should have the right to choose menthol “is so hypocritical it’s unbelievable,” Payton says. “Addiction is the absolute opposite of choice.”
Research has shown that flavored cigarettes attract young new smokers. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed by President Obama in June 2009, authorized the FDA to ban all cigarette flavors except minty menthol, whose brands represent more than a quarter of cigarettes sold in the USA.
In an open letter to Congress in 2008, seven former secretaries of Health and Human Services or Health, Education, and Welfare and a former surgeon general urged that the act ban menthol cigarettes as well.
“Banning flavored cigarettes, which mask the harshness of tobacco-something that can deter some first-time smokers, especially children-is a positive move,” they wrote. “But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans.”