Battling Menthol’s Influence on Black Communities

…By Khurram Alley for TDPel Media. In these turbulent times, it can be easy to lose hope. But dedicated activists are working to make a difference. Removing menthol from the market could save thousands of African American lives and significantly reduce health disparities. But that requires fighting against the influence of a few influential leaders.


The Tobacco Industry’s Targeting of Black Communities

For decades, menthols have been targeted toward black communities with pervasive marketing of menthol cigarettes and other flavored cigars. This targeting has included sponsorship of community and cultural events, free sampling at retail outlets in Black neighborhoods, recurrent advertising on billboards and buses and in magazines in those communities, and massive opposition campaigns against local policies to limit the marketing of flavored cigarettes. 

For decades, the tobacco industry has also used racial profiling to target Black communities. Internal tobacco company documents show that they favored targeting minority and low-income populations because these groups are easier to recruit, market to, and more likely to become addicted to the tobacco products they promote. 

Tobacco companies have aggressively profiled Black youth, women, and low-income populations by promoting menthol cigarettes, which are cheaper and more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes. 


This targeted marketing is a significant contributor to the high rates of tobacco use in Black America, which lead to heart disease, cancer, and other diseases that cause death and devastation for families and communities nationwide. Black Americans deserve better, which treats their health and lives as expendable for profit. 

It’s time for Congress to pass the proposed ban on menthol cigarettes and end tobacco’s predatory practices contributing to higher levels of smoking and disease among Black Americans.

The History of Menthol Marketing

From the 1950s to today, tobacco companies have targeted Black communities with pervasive menthol marketing, including sponsorship of community and music events, free sample giveaways, and magazine advertising that exploited cultural hallmarks and stereotypes. It is alarming how effective the tobacco industry’s targeting has been. In the 1950s, only a small percentage of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes, but now, due to the industry’s efforts, that number has skyrocketed to 85%. 

Unfortunately, the trend persists today with great menthol advertisements in areas with large Black populations. The advertisements show Black people smoking mentholated brands while exuding a relaxed, hip vibe that promotes using these tobacco products as an accessory to a healthy lifestyle. These ads are part of a long history of the tobacco industry trying to cultivate influencers in the Black community, including local media dependent on advertising revenue, organizations reliant on tobacco industry funding, and politicians seeking campaign contributions.

The FDA’s 2009 Decision to Ban Menthol Cigarettes

The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act allowed the FDA to regulate tobacco products. That law prohibited most cigarette flavors but exempted menthol, leaving the industry free to continue targeting vulnerable communities with predatory advertising tactics for decades. 


The menthol in cigarettes masks the harshness of smoking and increases smokers’ craving for nicotine, making it harder for them to quit. The flavoring also makes children more likely to start smoking, and 60% of pregnant women smoke menthol cigarettes. A menthol ban would protect the health of Black Americans and other communities, including youths. 

A recent report found that youths with access to menthol cigarettes are twice as likely to become regular smokers. That’s why the National Urban League urges the Food and Drug Administration to immediately move forward with a menthol cigarette ban. The FDA will finalize a rule prohibiting menthol in cigarettes and all flavored cigars within the following year. 

It is a step that will significantly reduce tobacco-related disease and death, especially among youths. The new regulations would not apply to individual consumers but will target manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers bringing these products into the marketplace. The agency will also take steps to open direct engagement with the public, including in affected communities.

The Biden Administration’s Proposal to Ban Menthol Cigarettes

For a while now, activists have maintained that menthol cigarettes facilitate the initiation of smoking among young people and make it more challenging for them to quit. They have called on the FDA to ban flavored tobacco, and the agency has now responded to a court-ordered deadline with a proposal to do just that. 

The plan would ban the manufacture, sale, or marketing of menthol cigarettes and other flavored cigars, including mint and fruit flavors. In addition, the proposal would also ban flavored e-cigarettes. Proponents of the ban say it is an opportunity to help address the disproportionate number of Black smokers and the higher rates of smoking-related illness, disease, and death that accompany them. 


Final Words

They say the proposal will prevent kids from becoming smokers, reduce youth initiation, and increase smokers’ likelihood of quitting successfully. Critics, however, argue that the ban will disproportionately impact communities of color and lead to increased policing in those communities. 

The proposal still needs to be put in place, and the ban could face years of delay as it goes through the rulemaking process and possible legal challenges from the tobacco industry. But the decision to seek a menthol cigarette ban is a significant step in the right direction.

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