-Staff Writer-

Once aimed at Blacks, menthol cigarettes may be banned in effort to reduce smoking

WASHINGTON – The “African Americanization” of menthol cigarettes may be coming to a halt as the Food and Drug Administration considers what, if anything, to do about menthol flavoring in efforts to reduce cigarette smoking.

Cigarette smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in America.


According to researcher Phillip Gardiner, in the 1960s “through the use of television and other advertising media, coupled with culturally tailored images and messages, the tobacco industry ‘African Americanized’ menthol cigarettes. The tobacco industry successfully positioned mentholated products, especially Kool, as young, hip, new, and healthy,” he explained.

“During the time that menthols were gaining a large market share in the African American community, the tobacco industry donated funds to African American organizations hoping to blunt the attack on their products. Many of these findings are drawn from the tobacco industry documents disclosed following the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 (an agreement between the four largest tobacco companies to settle Medicaid lawsuits).”

Last year FDA banned candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes in attempts to reduce the number of children who start to smoke and become addicted to tobacco products. Now the agency is looking at menthol and flavored tobacco products other than cigarettes. As many as 80 percent of Black and 30 percent of Latino smokers prefer menthol cigarettes compared to only 22 percent of non-Latino Whites.

The FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is investigating whether menthol covers tobacco’s bitter taste–making it easier to smoke and harder to quit.

“It is no secret that Blacks have long been targeted by marketing campaigns for menthol cigarettes, a strategy that has been proven disturbingly effective. Almost 50,000 Blacks die each year from smoking related diseases and thousands more are crippled by smoking related ailments. More Black women get lung cancer than breast cancer and Black men are 50 percent more likely to get lung cancer compared to White men,” said Dr. Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services.

According to research done by Mr. Gardiner in “The African Americanization of Menthol Cigarettes,” Blacks smoke fewer cigarettes per day, take fewer puffs per cigarette, but maintain higher blood levels of cotinine, the major metabolite of nicotine, and have higher carbon monoxide concentrations in their blood, compared with other racial and ethnic groups.

Over the past 40 years, lung cancer rates among Blacks have increased significantly compared to White Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A jump in 1990 lung cancer death rates for Black males reflects a 20- to 25-year period, which corresponds to increased use of menthol cigarettes by this population.

“Masking the harsh flavor and burn of tobacco with a cool minty taste is a surefire way to get children to begin to smoke, which is particularly troubling because 45 percent of smokers aged 12 to 17, and 82 percent of Black or African American smokers age 12 or older are smoking menthol cigarettes, and we know that 90 percent of adult smokers were hooked as teens,” said Joseph Califano, of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

A FDA panel will meet and prepare a report scheduled for release in March 2011.

Menthol cigarettes account for roughly one-third of the $70 billion U.S. cigarette market, according to industry figures and Blacks smoke 75 percent of menthol cigarettes.