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Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the USA and many other countries. However, among all racial and ethnic groups in the USA, African Americans bear the greatest burden from tobacco-related morbidity and mortality.1 Every year, 45 000 African Americans prematurely and unnecessarily die from tobacco-caused diseases. An estimated 85% of them smoked menthol cigarettes.2
Menthol’s sensory properties reinforce smoking, increase uptake of nicotine and toxic smoke components, and discourage cessation. Menthol’s cooling, anaesthetic and analgesic effects ease initiation among new smokers by masking the harshness and irritation of tobacco smoke, reducing pain sensations in the mouth and throat, and enabling deeper inhalation that facilitates greater exposure to nicotine.3
On 3 March 2009, Representative Henry Waxman and 124 congressional cosponsors introduced H.R. 1256—the ‘Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.’4 Representative Waxman’s Committee Report expressed concerns about the disproportionate use of menthol cigarettes among African Americans, the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes in black communities, and the higher rates of lung cancer among African American smokers compared with non-African American smokers, urging the Secretary of Health and Human Services to move quickly to address the unique public health issues posed by menthol cigarettes. Yet, although most other characterising flavours in cigarettes were prohibited in 2009 under the final version of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, menthol was inexplicably excluded.5 It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of African Americans and other menthol smokers are destined to die prematurely if the exemption of menthol is allowed to continue.6
The disproportionate toll of menthol cigarettes among African Americans compared with the general population is a social injustice. The black community has long been subjected to the predatory marketing of mentholated tobacco products, particularly in lower income areas, where there are not only more advertisements, but more promotions and cheaper prices for menthol cigarettes when compared with more affluent neighbourhoods.7 Tobacco companies also heavily rely on their cooptation of community leaders to defuse tobacco control efforts.8 Black-led organisations with financial ties to the tobacco industry have played a critical role in disseminating misinformation throughout the black community. Such misinformation, for example, includes the idea that local policies prohibiting the sale of mentholated tobacco products are racist and will increase the criminalisation of individuals who possess or smoke them, exploiting legitimate concerns about racist policing to defend the tobacco industry’s targeted predation on the black community.9 10
Authors Mendez and Le, in their article ‘Consequences of a match made in hell: the harm caused by menthol smoking to the African American population over 1980–2018,’11 show why none of us can remain silent and complicit. This paper should serve as a kick upside the head for those who are in a position to remove these deadly products from the marketplace. Until this paper, no prior study has fully quantified the health harm inflicted on African Americans by menthol cigarettes. Yet, for at least three decades, African American tobacco control activists have been out there resisting the pervasive presence of the tobacco industry and their deadly products in black communities,12–15 including filing a lawsuit to get the Center for Tobacco Products of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to act on menthol.16 Now the evidence is irrefutable: menthol cigarettes are killing our people at a rate unmatched by any other assaults on our community.
Though constituting only 12% of the total US population, African Americans bear an alarming amount of the total menthol-related harm: 41% of the smoking-related premature deaths and 50% of the life-years lost. This analysis demonstrates the contribution of menthol cigarettes toward the annihilation of a people already under siege by a racist society and its myriad of inequities, governmental policies and political domination.17 18 Institutionalised racism, its long historical impact, and the associated, yet unresolved, intergenerational trauma experienced by black people in America have made them vulnerable to the clever marketing and predatory dumping of mentholated tobacco products in their communities.
For decades, the tobacco industry has exploited social and economic inequities to foster the uptake and use of menthol cigarettes, and create brand loyalty among African Americans. Tobacco companies strategically targeted menthol cigarettes to low-income African Americans, blanketing inner city communities with marketing, free samples, and music promotions,19 and thereby contributing to the tobacco-related health disparities observed today, as Mendez and Le have now confirmed. We can no longer ignore the intersecting, overlapping and distinctive systems of oppression that shape ‘being black in America’ and how menthol cigarettes contribute to sustained and widening health disparities.20
This paper is compelling on its own merit; however, read in tandem with the authors’ previous paper,21 one can fully appreciate the significant role menthol cigarettes have played in addicting millions of young people to nicotine and in the deaths of thousands due to tobacco. As the authors emphasise, mentholated cigarettes have a ‘significant detrimental impact on the public’s health and could continue to pose a substantial health risk.’
More than a decade after the FDA was given authority to regulate tobacco products, long after other flavours favoured by white children were banned from most tobacco products, and long after the first of several scientific reports found menthol cigarettes to pose a public health risk above that seen with non-menthol cigarettes,22–24 the FDA still has not acted. The black community has been abandoned at the federal level, leaving activists to seek local and state policy changes. So, the question for me is: Given the mountains of evidence, will anything push the federal government to consider social justice and act on its commitment to finally ban menthol cigarettes and all flavoured cigars?25 26
The recent highly publicised killings of black men and women, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others, brought to the forefront of our nation’s conscience how pervasively racism permeates everyday life. Whether one is on the receiving or perpetuating end of racist behaviours or if one benefits from or is negatively impacted by racist policies, we all recently watched how quickly the world mobilised to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Are we in a moment to leverage this movement?
If menthol cigarettes are allowed to stay in the marketplace, the lives of African Americans and others remain at increased risk. Conversely, removing these terrible products will benefit not only the black community but also other racial and ethnic groups, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, youth and those with behavioural health issues, since these groups also disproportionately smoke mentholated cigarettes over non-mentholated cigarettes.27–30 I ask that others stand with us to repair a wrong done to the black community, as we stand with you. There is simply no ethically acceptable reason to allow the tobacco industry to continue using a flavouring that makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. Whether we work at the federal, state or local level, we are empowered in our collective work to protect our communities from our number one killer, a corporate industry of federally adjudicated racketeers.31 This paper provides us with added ammunition to get that vital work done. It is long past time for the FDA to get inoculated against whatever the hell is keeping it from getting these deadly products out of the marketplace.
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Contributors As the sole author, VY, I made substantial contributions to the conception and design of the work. I drafted the work and revised it critically for important intellectual content. As the sole author, I provided final approval of the version published and am accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.