By Jeff Engelmann and Delores Green
As we celebrate Black History Month, there are many notable achievements our state can be proud of. We elected Mandela Barnes, the first African-American Lieutenant Governor in our state. On Jan. 7, 2019, 19-year-old college student Kalan Haywood became the youngest state legislator in Wisconsin, and perhaps, the nation. That same day, Shelia Stubbs, after serving as the only African-American on the Dane County Board, became the first African-American to serve as the state assemblywoman in Wisconsin’s 77th District. Finally, Dr. LaKeshia Myers defeated longtime incumbent Fred Kessler to became one of two African-American women to serve in our state assembly. Our hopes and prayers for these newly elected officials is that they leave a legacy that reflects their tireless efforts to improve the health and well-being of all Wisconsin residents.
A first step in assuring improved health outcomes is to address health disparities. As a cancer prevention researcher and community organizer, and members of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network’s Menthol Education Subcommittee, we have a particular interest in seeing that tobacco disparities are abated. In Wisconsin, the adult smoking rate for African-Americans is nearly double that of the general population, and according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, nearly nine in 10 African-American smokers (88.5 percent) aged 12 and older use menthol cigarettes.
Although most cigarettes contain some menthol, certain brands, such as Newport, use menthol in greater quantities – making it detectable as a characterizing flavor. Menthol reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke, which may appeal to young, inexperienced smokers. Menthol cigarettes are just as dangerous to an individual’s health as non-menthol cigarettes and are easier to start smoking and more difficult to quit than regular cigarettes. Tobacco manufacturers market and heavily advertise menthol brands in African-American communities. In Milwaukee there are nearly twice as many tobacco retailers per resident as there are in the suburbs. Menthol and candy-flavored tobacco products are the most popular products sold.
Tobacco is the leading contributor to the three main causes of death among African Americans: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Nationally, African-Americans smoke at rates similar to the general population; however, African-Americans in Wisconsin smoke at rates nearly twice the national average.
Since this is indeed Black History Month, it is worth exploring how menthol became so popular in African-American communities across the nation. Public health expert Dr. Philip Gardiner has shown that the tobacco industry has “African Americanized” menthol cigarettes. They have done so through the use of advertising with culturally tailored images and messages. The tobacco industry successfully positioned mentholated products, especially Kool, as young, hip, new and healthy. This was during the time that menthol cigarettes were gaining a large market share in the African-American community. The tobacco industry also donated funds to African-American organizations hoping to blunt the attack on their products.
There is perhaps, light at the end of this very dangerous tunnel. On Nov.15, 2018, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb proposed new steps to protect youth by preventing access to flavored tobacco products and banning menthol cigarettes. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, if adopted, the proposals will have a greater impact in reducing tobacco use by youth and African-Americans than any regulatory measure ever undertaken by the federal government.
While we strongly support these federal regulatory measures, they likely wouldn’t go into effect for several years, as the tobacco industry will no doubt fight any such measure tooth and nail. Our hope is that Wisconsin policy-makers do not wait for federal legislation on the issue, and instead take steps now to address deep health disparities related to use of tobacco, especially menthol products. Stronger measures should also be taken to reduce youth access and exposure to menthol and other flavored tobacco products.
This year, beginning with Black History Month, let us all work together across the political aisle to combat these and other smoking/tobacco products, the leading preventable cause of death, and a major cause of health disparities in our state.