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Menthol Cigarettes' Hidden Link To Black Americans

Although the percentage of black Americans smoking tobacco has declined for years, 9 in 10 black people who do say they use menthol cigarettes.
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Menthol Cigarettes' Hidden Link To Black Americans

Although the percentage of African-American smokers has declined for years, to this day, 9 in 10 black people who do smoke say they use menthol-flavored cigarettes, according to the latest peer-reviewed data.

Menthol is the only flavored cigarette not outlawed by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

But some argue the black population's attachment to the menthol variety and tobacco in general isn't a coincidence.

"The truth is this is exploitation," said Ritney Castine, Truth Initiative director of community and youth engagement.

Castine works for Truth Initiative and does anti-smoking community outreach.

"The tobacco industry has a well-documented and long history of developing and marketing menthol brands to racial and ethnic minorities and youth," Castine said.

Tobacco companies were some of the first major businesses to have positive representations of black people in ads. Elston Howard, the New York Yankees' first black player, sponsored Kool cigarettes. James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" was used for a '70s Newport slogan.

From 1998 to 2002, you were 10 times more likely to see a menthol cigarette ad in Ebony magazine than in People, according to one study.

Tobacco companies also gave millions of dollars to black institutions, like the NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus and others.

What followed this apparent campaign in the black community was a massive influx in black people buying and consuming this particular flavor of cigarette — a trend that continues today.

"In 1953, 5 percent of African Americans used menthol products. By 1968, that had tripled to 14 percent. By 1976, that had tripled again to 42 percent. Into the 2000s, we're above 80 percent," said public health activist Dr. Phillip Gardiner.

A new documentary sponsored by Truth Initiative titled "Black Lives, Black Lungs" explores what it considers targeting by Big Tobacco in the black community.

"Menthol is the only flavor that's legal, and it's no coincidence that it's the flavor that African-Americans prefer most," documentary filmmaker Lincoln Mondy said.

Mondy worked on this doc for two years.

"They saw an opportunity ... as a marketing segment they could take advantage of because everyone else wasn't watching. ... People a lot of times say this happened years ago, things like that, but it's like, look where we are now. ... Menthol is so ingrained in our culture. It's in songs; they're jokes," Mondy said.

An email and phone call to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for comment was not immediately returned. But in a statement to the Huffington Post in 2016, R.J. Reynolds, which owns Newport, said: "Our marketing efforts are designed to reach a wide and diverse audience of adult tobacco consumers. … Adult African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities have the same ability and right as the rest of the population to evaluate and make informed decisions about whether or not they want to use tobacco."

Although former President Barack Obama enacted anti-smoking legislation and spoke against tobacco use, menthol has gone largely unchecked. The Food and Drug Administration has the regulatory power to ban menthol cigarettes but hasn't.

"As a physician who cared for hospitalized cancer patients and as a cancer survivor myself, I saw first-hand the impact of tobacco," said Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

That said, in July the FDA announced a plan to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes across the country.