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Why These Black Doctors Are Pushing President Obama to Ban Menthol Cigarettes, Tobacco Products

A 1950's magazine ad for Newport menthols targeting African-American consumers.

A 1950s magazine ad for Newport menthols targeting African-American consumers.

The popularity of menthol-flavored cigarettes among African-American consumers has a group of Black doctors urging President Barack Obama to ban all mentholated tobacco products.

According to NBC News, the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council is calling on the president to direct the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in removing all menthol-flavored tobacco products from store shelves.

Data complied by the FDA in 2013 revealed that menthol cigarettes posed a greater health risk to Americans than regular cigarettes. Because African-Americans are more likely to smoke mentholated cigarettes, they’re also more likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses.

“The AATCLC is asking for your direct intercession to help prevent the deaths of the 45,000 Black people who die every year in this country from tobacco-related diseases,” the council wrote in a letter to Obama. “It has been well documented that mentholated cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products are responsible for the initiation of smoking among our youth, as well as the difficulty in quitting among established smokers.”

“Furthermore, tobacco companies have historically and effectively targeted Black communities with highly concentrated, specialized menthol cigarette marketing campaigns,” it continued.

The council went on to cite the connection between cheaply priced menthol cigarettes in low-income Black neighborhoods and the staggering 88 percent of African-American adults and 95 percent of Black youth who report smoking menthol-flavored cigarettes.

So what makes a pack of menthols so appealing to African-Americans?

“The punchline here about menthol is it allows the poisons in tobacco cigarettes to go down easier,” AATCLC co-chair Dr. Phillip Gardiner told NBC Washington. “And the key thing that African-Americans smoke is menthol cigarettes.”

In 2013, the FDA banned fruit- and candy-flavored cigarettes because of its potential to increase “smoking initiation” among youth while making it harder for all smokers to kick the habit, NBC News reports. The agency stopped short of prohibiting mentholated cigarettes, however.

“We would point out that menthol is one of the most widely studied ingredients in cigarettes, and based on the best available scientific evidence, menthol cigarettes are not more harmful than non-menthol cigarettes and, therefore, should not be regulated any differently,” R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the corporation that makes the wildly-popular Newport cigarettes, said Thursday.

According to a study published by the American Journal of Public Health last month, Newport menthols are the preferred cigarette for nearly three-quarters of African-American smokers aged 18 to 25. Another two-thirds of under-aged Black smokers preferred the Newport brand of menthols, too.

Unsurprisingly, the targeted advertising strategies of big tobacco companies to African-American consumers played a major role in the infiltration of mentholated cigarettes in the Black community.

Research compiled by 22-year-old George Washington University student Lincoln Mondy for the film project “Black Lungs/Black Lives” revealed countless campaign strategies aimed specifically at low-income African-Americans. For instance, the Huffington Post reports that Mondy searched for keywords like “ethnic” and “ghetto” within the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents database, which yielded results from a document asserting that “negroes” smoke menthol cigarettes “to mask real/mythical odor.”

Mondy’s research also found that tobacco companies bought up more advertising space in Black-owned publications like Jet, Ebony and Essence magazines. Higher-ups in the tobacco industry would even go so far as to take “ethnic field trips” to Black areas and pass out free menthol cigarettes.

“You’re getting them hooked for free,” Mondy said of the  “disturbing” marketing tactics. “So they (tobacco companies) would go and take really impressive research to kind of pinpoint the culture and see what people like, what people don’t like. And then, maybe like three months later, after that one ethnic field trip, there’d be an ad targeted specifically to that population.”

To Gardiner, the public health issue spurred by mentholated cigarettes is just as pressing as any social issue and needs to be addressed promptly.

“What we are asking of you, President Obama, can be accomplished rapidly with the stroke of a pen,” he wrote in the letter. “Your strong and decisive leadership can give our community a fighting chance against the number one killer of Black people, tobacco.”

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