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The fight over banning menthol cigarettes has a long history steeped in race

Left: A Kool cigarettes advertisement targeting Black communities for a sponsored event, the <em>Kool Jazz Festival</em>; Right: A Kent cigarettes ad targeting Black smokers.
Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising
Left: A Kool cigarettes advertisement targeting Black communities for a sponsored event, the Kool Jazz Festival; Right: A Kent cigarettes ad targeting Black smokers.

Lincoln Mondy grew up in a mixed race family in Texas, where his white mother's family used regular tobacco, unlike his Black father.

"My dad exclusively smokes menthol cigarettes," he says. "Menthol was such a part of Black culture. And I knew that Black people smoked menthol and that was just a fact."

The 29-year-old filmmaker turned his curiosity about race and menthol tobacco into adocumentary on the topic he produced for the Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking advocacy group.

He then realized how menthol's popularity with the Black community came from decades of racially targeted marketing, including ads (such as the Kent Menthol ad shown above) depicting Black models in Black magazines like Ebony, and cultural events in Black neighborhoods — like the KOOL Jazz festival, sponsored by the menthol brand. "They really created menthol as a Black product," Mondy says.

Now, as a proposed ban on menthol remains in limbo since the Biden administration put it on hold in December, lobbying and debate continues about how the ban would impact Black smokers.

Lincoln Mondy
Tania S. July / Lincoln Mondy
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Lincoln Mondy
Lincoln Mondy

Not only is the minty, cooling flavored tobacco most heavily marketed and consumed in Black communities, where over 80% of smokers use menthol, it is a big reason Black men face the highest rate of lung cancer, says Phillip Gardiner, a public health activist and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. Latino and LGBTQ communities as well as women were also targeted, he says.

The minty, cooling flavor of menthol masks the smoke and soothes the throat, making it easier to inhale deeply. "The more deeply you inhale, the more nicotine and toxins you take and the more addicted you become," and the more lethal the product, Gardiner says.

That history is why efforts to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars have always been entwined with race. Menthol has become a flashpoint of controversy, dividing Black leaders and their communities.

The Food and Drug Administration was set to enact a long-awaited ban on menthol cigarettes and cigars last August. The rule detailing the ban has already been written but needed to be approvedby the White House's Office of Management and Budget before it could be finalized. The White House since delayed it until March, and agreed to hold meetings with groups opposed to the rule. This angered activists like Gardiner.

"It's ridiculous; thousands of lives are being lost because of the inactivity of the FDA and now the White House," he says. Gardiner says the delays are the result of the industry wielding its financial influence within the Black community.

Late last year, tobacco giant Altria recently sponsored a poll finding a menthol ban would sway more Black voters against President Biden. Details of that poll have not been released, and NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson refutes its findings, saying in a video statement, "we're the largest civil rights organization in the Black community in 47 states across the country; no one has raised this as a political issue."

One of the most vocal and influential voices against menthol bans is Reverend Al Sharpton. Sharpton and his group, National Action Network, didn't respond to requests for comment, but in the past, they've acknowledged working with and receiving funding from tobacco companies— including in fighting in New York state, which has considered a menthol ban.

"Smoking is bad for you, no question about it, but if it's a health health issue, why aren't you banning all cigarettes," Sharpton says to a cheering crowd, in a video from a speech at a 2019 National Action Network event. Implied in a menthol ban, he says is the notion that "whites know how much to smoke and we don't know how much to smoke."

More recently, in lobbying against a federal ban, Sharpton has also repeated his argument, including in a letter to White House's domestic policy advisor Susan Rice that it would lead to more over-policing of Black people. He cites the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police during an arrest on suspicion of selling loose untaxed cigarettes.

In fact, a federal menthol ban would not outlaw individuals from possessing or using those cigarettes, but bar the manufacture and sale of them.

But Lincoln Mondy, the filmmaker, says coming from respected leaders like Sharpton, messages that tap into existing fears about aggressive policing can be deeply confusing and divisive for the Black community.

"My granny has pictures of Al Sharpton on her mantle, along with Jesus," he says. "Especially for our elders, you have Black leaders who are selling this tobacco PR line around policing and [messages like]: 'They're just trying to take things away from Black people.'"

He and others say the delays in the federal menthol ban have already handed the industry a win. In places like California and Massachusetts that already banned menthol, the tobacco industry is now selling menthol-like flavors that aren't technically menthol, and therefore not subject to those new laws.

A similar end run, he says, would be likely if any national ban were to take effect.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.