The United States Food and Drug Administration has proposed new rules to ban the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes. But with the dangers of smoking so well known, why is the current focus on these specific tobacco products?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the tobacco industry is targeting black Americans with the marketing of menthol cigarettes through advertisements, freebies, special pricing, style brands, life and event sponsorships of rap, hip-hop and jazz artists. The goal is to get young black people hooked so they become lifelong customers.
“No one inhales cigarette smoke for the first time and thinks it feels good,” says Gina Cuyler, MD, FACP, vice president of health equity and community investments at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “That’s why tobacco companies seek to tone down that initial experience so that newbies continue to taste the product and become addicted.” The nicotine in cigarettes is highly addictive and the addition of menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat and airways, making the smoke easier to inhale.
Menthol is a chemical compound found naturally in peppermint and other similar plants. According to the CDC, some research shows that menthol cigarettes may be more addictive than menthol-free cigarettes because menthol can alter the way the brain registers taste and pain sensations.
So how successful are marketing efforts to black Americans? More than 70% of black youth ages 12-17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes, and black adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
In 2019 and 2020, sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes accounted for 37% of all cigarette sales in the United States, the highest proportion in 55 years.
The CDC estimates that 40% of excess deaths from menthol smoking in the United States between 1980 and 2018 were black Americans, although black Americans only make up about 12% of the American population. Black Americans ages 18-49 are twice as likely to die of heart disease as white Americans, and Black Americans ages 35-64 are 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than Americans whites.
“US Census Bureau projections show that black Americans generally have higher death rates than white Americans for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, and diabetes. “, explains Cuyler. “Smoking contributes to each of these conditions.”
Evidence from other countries confirms the public health benefits of banning menthol cigarettes. After the implementation of a 2017 law banning their sale in Ontario, Canada, adults who smoked menthol cigarettes reported high rates of quit attempts and success.
“We need to educate the public, especially people of color, about this effort by tobacco companies to create nicotine addicts in our black communities,” advises Cuyler. “All young people deserve to live a tobacco-free life!
The New York State Smokers’ Helpline offers proven resources to help people who want to quit smoking. Call 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487) or go online to www.nysmokefree.com.