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Ashley Hickey/MEDILL

The cigarette display at a Chicago Loop convenience store promotes Newport menthol cigarettes, the leading brand among African-Americans.

If you’re young and black and a smoker, you probably smoke menthols – that’s because cigarette companies want you to

by Ashley Hickey
Nov 07, 2013

There’s no way to blow smoke with this one: Tobacco control efforts have successfully reduced the national smoking rate, but the decline masks a growing trend in the use of menthol cigarettes.

People are actually lighting up menthol cigarettes at a higher rate, according to recent studies. A lot of these smokers are young adults. And the majority of them are African-American. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign to curb menthol cigarette smoking – calling on the Food and Drug Administration to consider everything from menthol-specific warning labels to an outright ban – will be no easy task.

One doctor, who has studied menthol cigarette use in the black community, explains:

“The reason African-American kids are initiating smoking mostly menthols is because they are surrounded by people who smoke menthols, surrounded by advertisements that say, ‘This is what black folks do. If we smoke, this is what we smoke. This is how it’s done,’” said Dr. Jennifer Pearson, research investigator at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies.

Almost one in five African-Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, according to a 2011 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And among African-Americans who smoke, 84.5 percent use menthols, compared to 26.9 percent of white smokers.

Dating back to the 1960s, tobacco companies identified African-Americans as a strategic market. African-Americans’ search for empowerment and recognition made them a prime target for brands marketed to help them build a sense of identity in American culture.

Advertisements for menthol brands Kool and Newport showcased African-American models and a glamorized urban lifestyle.

“It was the first or one of the first products that was marketed to African-Americans, and it was seen as a civil rights coup,” Pearson said, which led to a feeling in the black community that, “‘People are finally seeing us as people who are worth marketing to,’ and that was seen as a good thing.”

As recently as 2004, the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation came under fire in several states, including Illinois, for its Kool Mixx campaign that targeted youth through hip-hop culture and music, offering Kool Mixx branded CDs featuring popular artists, DJ competitions and specially designed Kool Mixx cigarette packaging.

The regulatory environment is much stricter today. Tobacco companies can’t run ads on TV, can’t advertise in magazines that have a high percentage of young readers and can’t sponsor events.

As a result, “Tobacco companies are a lot more savvy these days,” Pearson said. “The reality is if you live in an urban, segregated place, you’re more likely to be black, more likely to be low-income, and more likely to be surrounded by menthol cigarettes, most likely Newports.”

A recent study out of the Stanford University School of Medicine looked at California neighborhoods with high schools, and found that as the proportion of African-American high school students rose, the proportion of menthol advertising increased, the odds of a Newport promotion were higher and the cost of Newport cigarettes was lower.

Newport is the leading brand among African-American youths, with 80 percent loyal to the brand, according to a 2005 SAMHSA report.

There is a lot of reinforcement in the African-American community that “this is our cigarette, this was made for us,” Pearson said.

“I smoke Newports, always Newports,” a 23-year-old African-American male from Chicago said Wednesday. “Nothing else hits the spot.”

The man’s friend, 26, who is also African-American, said he has been smoking for six years and has only smoked Newport cigarettes.

“You don’t get as strong of a rush from anything else,” he said.

With diseases from smoking killing more African-Americans each year than car crashes, murders, AIDS, and drug and alcohol abuse combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some are starting to see menthol smoking in the African-American community as an issue of social justice. 

“Tobacco use is a social justice issue in general,” Pearson said. “It’s concentrated among people who are poor, white and black. But then, menthol is a little bit different because it’s so delicious that it seems to be more attractive to young folks, and a little more difficult to quit.”

The FDA banned other flavored cigarettes after the 2009 Tobacco Control Act was passed, and is considering the same treatment for menthols.

African-Americans would benefit the most from such a move.

Pearson’s research shows that had a menthol ban gone into effect in 2011, at least 320,000 deaths would be averted by 2050, one-third of them among African-Americans.