Black Health Experts Renew Fight Against Menthol Cigarettes
The New York Times
By Sabrina Tavernise
WASHINGTON — Menthol cigarettes account for about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States, and they are particularly popular among black smokers — about four out of five report smoking them, according to federal surveys.
The effects are devastating: About 45,000 African-Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses — the largest cause of preventable death, more than homicides, AIDS and car accidents. Black men have the highest lung cancer mortality rate of any demographic group.
Three years ago, the Food and Drug Administration seemed poised to take action. It said research showed that the mint flavoring made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, meaning that the substance harmed public health, a finding that activists and experts believed laid the groundwork for banning menthol.
But nothing has happened, and on Tuesday, a group of African-American activists and health experts made an appeal to President Obama, arguing that the issue was not only one of health, but also of social justice.
“What we’re trying to do is involve the president of the United States in this discussion,” said Phillip Gardiner, a chairman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “We die disproportionately of cancer-related diseases. Part of what has taken place here is the use of menthol cigarettes.”
But that might be changing. An invigorated public conversation about race in the United States seems to be breathing new life into the issue. In July, the N.A.A.C.P. voted to support state and local efforts to restrict the sale of menthol cigarettes, a drastic departure from the past.
A spokesman for the N.A.A.C.P. says the group receives no funding from the tobacco industry.
“It’s been a pivotal year,” Dr. Gardiner said. “There’s been some motion.”
Menthol has a long history among African-Americans. Valerie Yerger, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied the tobacco industry, said documents showed that cigarette companies targeted low-income, African-American neighborhoods.
She said Lorillard, the maker of Newport, the most popular menthol brand, ordered its sales representatives in the 1980s to “stay out of the suburbs and go into tough inner-city neighborhoods.”
Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which owns Lorillard, said she could not comment because the documents were written long before the company acquired Lorillard in 2015.
Lisa Henriksen, a researcher at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, said she had documented patterns of racial disparities in tobacco marketing. In a 2012 study of tobacco sales near California high schools, she found the higher the enrollment of African-American students, the higher the percentage of advertisements for menthol cigarettes. Newports were cheaper, she found, near schools with higher shares of African-American students.
Ms. Payne said it was her understanding that Lorillard’s retail programs “were offered uniformly on a statewide basis.”
Dr. Henriksen argued the marketing had an effect. While smoking rates have been declining across the nation, rates for menthol cigarette use among those 18 to 25 climbed to 16 percent in 2010, from 13 percent in 2004, according to a 2011 federal report. From 2008 to 2010, about 57 percent of youth smokers used menthol cigarettes, according to Truth Initiative, an antismoking research group.
The F.D.A. said it had received more than 175,000 public comments in response to its 2013 findings on menthol. A spokesman, Michael Felberbaum, said the agency “is continuing to consider regulatory options related to menthol.”
Carol McGruder, a chairwoman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said the group had sent a letter to Mr. Obama; his wife, Michelle, and a number of heads of federal agencies, including the F.D.A. So far, she said, it had not received a reply. But it still hopes to.
“Our children deserve protection from the police,” she said. “They deserve protection from the deadly silent predator: the tobacco industry.”