In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the institutional racism underlying the inordinate use of violence by police against people of color. At the same time, another form of institutional racism has largely evaded public scrutiny: the tobacco industry’s marketing of mentholated tobacco products to the Black community.
The death toll is huge. About 45,000 Black Americans die from tobacco-related diseases every year. The three leading causes of death for Black Americans—heart disease, cancer, and stroke—are linked to tobacco use. Owing to economic factors and racism in the medical system, Black smokers who develop tobacco-related diseases die at higher rates than white smokers.
Menthol as a tobacco additive is a problem because it’s a gimmick that works. It numbs the throat and makes tobacco smoke less harsh. Menthol thus makes it easier for kids to start smoking and harder for adults to quit.
In the 1950s, about 5% of Black smokers smoked menthol cigarettes. But marketing researchers found that Black smokers had a slight preference for menthol cigarettes, a preference that tobacco companies sought to exploit. And so the industry began to heavily advertise menthol brands in Black communities and Black media. The industry also began sponsoring jazz festivals and cultural events in Black communities, and donating to civil rights groups.
This exercise in targeted marketing worked. Today, about 85% of Black smokers use menthol brands. Although older forms of advertising (e.g., big billboards) are prohibited, allegiance to menthol is maintained through point-of-sale and discount promotions of mentholated tobacco products—small, cheap cigars are the latest example—in Black communities.
Passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009 gave the FDA an opening to ban menthol. The act banned fruit and candy flavors in cigarettes but, in deference to the tobacco industry’s political clout, menthol was exempted. A future ruling on menthol was supposed to hinge on the results of research examining its health impacts.
In 2011 and again in 2013 the FDA reviewed the evidence and found that menthol cigarettes posed a greater health hazard than regular cigarettes. Yet it failed to act. Pressure by public health groups finally spurred Scott Gottlieb, FDA director under Donald Trump, to advance a plan to ban menthol.
But Republican senator Richard Burr, following in the footsteps of another North Carolina politician funded by the tobacco industry, Jesse Helms, interceded. According to reporting in The New York Times, Burr “helped to persuade the Trump administration to kill the plan in early 2019.”
In July 2020, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Action on Smoking and Health, along with the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association, sued the FDA in U.S. District Court to compel it to act on the menthol issue. In a filing with the court, the FDA promised to respond by April 29, 2021.
It’s not clear what happens next. If the FDA finally acts to ban menthol, and the Biden administration approves, this would put the quickest end to the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing of menthol.
If the FDA fumbles again, Congress could pass legislation to take mentholated tobacco products off the market, as Canada and the European Union have already done. Cities and states—following the lead of California and Massachusetts—could also ban menthol as a tobacco additive. These would be tough battles, given the $50 million per year the tobacco industry spends on lobbying.
Institutional racism can be hard to see because it’s often buried in organizational routines that are not consciously intended to be racist but which consistently produce racial inequalities. The targeted marketing of mentholated tobacco products to the Black community is an exception. In this case, the example is stark.
Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He is the author of “Smoke Damage: Voices from the Front Lines of America’s Tobacco Wars.”