How cigarettes became a civil rights issue

An American advertisement for menthol cigarettes from the 1970s.Credit: Alamy

Pushing the Freshness: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette Keith Wailoo Univ. Chicago Press (2021)

In 2019, when New York City Council proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, health advocates noted their popularity among black Americans and the disproportionate damage they have caused to the community. But the movement had a vocal critic.

Civil rights icon Al Sharpton opposed the ban, arguing that sales would go underground, drawing unwanted police attention to black people. The proposal was dropped.

In that incident, medical historian Keith Wailoo saw a pattern repeat itself: Civil rights champions have frequently opposed restrictions on menthol cigarette sales to defend the choices of black consumers. Wailoo’s Book Push Cool documents how, starting in the 1960s, the American tobacco industry methodically and deliberately brought about this cruel irony, tailoring its marketing and branding to increase menthol sales among black smokers. The companies have attracted black cultural figures, civil rights leaders and politicians in their attempt to continue selling flavored cigarettes.

Wailoo argues that tobacco companies have strategically cultivated preferences for menthol cigarettes in black communities over the decades, in order to keep sales on the rise and allay concerns about health risks.

His takeaway is this: Black Americans today smoke menthols at higher rates than any other group due to the “push” by cigarette companies and their savvy advertisers rather than “pull” consumer preferences. The health impacts are glaring: Black Americans are more likely than whites to die from smoking-related illnesses.

Wailoo extracts press reports over the decades, as well as posters, billboards and internal industry literature treasures that cigarette makers have been forced to release to the public after a series of lawsuits that have taken ended in 1998. With a lethal repeat, Menthols were silent actors on the stage of American History, witnessing epic flashpoints where health and politics collide. The case is stronger for the specificity and richness of detail that Wailoo weaves into it, though at times the vast cast of characters makes it difficult to keep track of the plot.

“Healthy” benefits

From the 1930s to the 1950s, tobacco companies marketed menthols as healthier alternatives to normal smokes, falsely touting the cool feeling of the minty flavor as a balm for sore throats or colds. Market research has indicated that people worried about the health risks could be appeased with suggested medicinal effects from a brand of menthol.

Two events have changed this dynamic. First, the U.S. government began to end false health benefit advertising claims, prompting companies to research other aspects of their customers’ tastes, preferences, or identities that influenced their purchases. .

Second, the strongest evidence to date of the harmful health effects of smoking came in 1964, when a crucial report by the American Surgeon General linked smoking to lung cancer. No longer able to draw people to health, cigarette companies sought to target their customers on the basis of race, gender and class. As the civil rights movement reached a crescendo this decade, market research companies identified black Americans as a large untapped market for menthol sales.

Billboards have been set up in predominantly black towns; much less showed up in the suburbs where the whites were settling. “Racial marketing” began to define the advertising of menthol brands. A Brown & Williamson advertisement in 1964 for their Kool menthol cigarette brand marked such a change: a smiling young man and woman lean over a rock parapet near a waterfall. Each is holding a cigarette; the woman passes a palm leaf and drags a hand in the stream. The slogan: “Feel an extra coolness in your throat.” Black media released a version featuring a black couple, a rare early inclusion of black models in the ad. A white couple posed in the version that reached white readers.

In the 1970s, tobacco branding was rampant at cultural and sporting events; For a time, Brown & Williamson was a major sponsor of jazz concerts. And in the 1980s, dollars poured from tobacco companies to social and political causes: Brown & Williamson partnered with civil rights group NAACP to fund a business incubator; RJR supported Ebony, the magazine of black culture; Philip Morris sponsored a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that drew 8,000 participants.

Wrong rights

These measures paid off over the following decades as the US government and health officials tried to put the brakes on Big Tobacco, Wailoo says.

In the 1990s, when US Secretary of Health Louis Sullivan opposed an upcoming menthol brand called Uptown aimed at black smokers, one of his main opponents was NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks.

Uptown never made it to the shelves, but the menthol burned down. In 2009, US lawmakers chose to regulate tobacco as a drug, and flavored cigarettes were banned – all but menthols, after opposition from powerful black lawmakers. In 2018, when U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb attempted to enact a ban on menthol cigarettes, he failed. Two years later, the FDA proposed to ban vape flavors because of their appeal to young people, but exempted menthol. Last April, the regulator announced that it was working on another proposal to ban menthol cigarettes; what form this will take remains to be seen.

In a dark coda, Wailoo observes that before being killed in police custody, Eric Garner sold cigarettes and George Floyd bought them. Their deaths, in 2014 and 2020, sparked resurgences in the Black Lives Matter movement and global calls to end racism. Once again, he notes, the ubiquitous legacy of the tobacco companies persists, clashing with the defining social movements of our time.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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