By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Ban on Menthol Cigarettes and the Black Community
When you don’t smoke, it seems extremely weird to see people smoking in public. At first glance, second-hand smoke has become a second-hand thought ever since we changed Wisconsin’s laws around public smoking in 2010. But like anything else, a closer look is required. Particularly, when you look toward the Black community.
In 2019, nearly 14 out of every 100 U.S. adults aged 18 years or older currently smoked cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC). This means an estimated 34.1 million adults in the United States currently smoke cigarettes. The CDC’s data looks at everything from education to income to sex to age to sexual orientation to race. What it found was startling. In the Black community, we smoke at a rate of about 15%. There are over 40 million Black or African American people living in the United States. That 15% represents roughly 6 million Black smokers.
Even though African Americans usually smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking them at an older age, we are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases than whites. Additionally, African American children and adults are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke than any other racial or ethnic group. Given that data, it’s no surprise to learn that tobacco use is a major contributor to the three leading causes of death among African Americans—heart disease, cancer and stroke. With all we know about the harmful effects of smoking, why do so many of us still smoke?
I wish the answer was complex, but sadly it is not. Similar to other arenas, in which predatory practices are used to ensnarl Black people into using destructive goods and services, we were targeted. I will never forget this line I read on a document produced by the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. It quoted an R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company Executive as saying “We don’t smoke that s_ _ _. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black and stupid.”
Many companies decided early they would go after Black consumers. They flooded our city neighborhoods with tobacco sales, billboard advertisements, focused on Black communities with a high concentration of young children, and went about the business of grooming customers for their products. In everything from branding to placement and marketing, cigarette companies made sure that everywhere we turned we could see their products. They used culturally tailored images to go after Black consumers.
They also tailored their cigarettes. First introduced in 1925, mentholated cigarettes are said to provide a minty taste and a cooling or soothing sensation. It helps to suppress coughing typically associated with smoking. Most damaging, menthol flavoring is believed to be more addictive and tougher to stop using. Today, according to the CDC, over 85% of Black smokers prefer mentholated brands. After years of flagging this as a health equity issue, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to ban menthol cigarettes in a matter of days. A recent study found that by banning the menthol cigarette, 230,000 African Americans would likely quit smoking within a year. Finally, we could be at a point of puff, puff, STOP.