Tasha Turner can’t remember a time in her life when her mother didn’t smoke. Once her mother’s work colleagues introduced her to menthol cigarettes, she was hooked. “It took everything from her and us,” Turner says, recalling the effect smoking had on her and her siblings. “She spent so much money on them, often smoking two to three packs a day.”
When Turner’s mother was just 49, she collapsed and spent several months on life support. “They had to bring her back several times,” Turner explains. “It was terrifying.” His mother was eventually released from hospital after a long stay, but she never quit smoking her beloved menthols and died six years later.
Adding insult to injury, Turner’s younger brother died soon after at the age of 37 from respiratory problems, the result of the long-term effects of second-hand smoke. “He lived the longest with my mother, so he was affected the most,” says the poet, who goes by the name Sixfootah The Poet, recalling the day paramedics took him out of the house in a body bag . “We are products of our environment. It doesn’t just affect the smoker; it affects everyone around them.
Today, Turner spreads the word about the dangers of menthol cigarettes and the tobacco industry’s irresponsible actions at open-mic parties and schools throughout the Northern California Bay Area. “I tell people, ‘These cigarettes are so addictive, they kill people,'” Turner says. “A rat does not go where there is no food. No one can say tobacco doesn’t kill to make a dollar bill.
Turner is right. Menthol cigarettes are the only flavored cigarettes still on the market today, and menthol cigarettes make it easier to start and harder to quit.
On April 28, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed regulations to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes, but the FDA did not make this decision alone. It’s the result of a movement of advocates like Turner who have worked for years to fight the tobacco industry and get menthol flavored cigarettes off the market. They are particularly concerned about the impact of cigarettes in black communities, where there is a disproportionate number of smokers of menthol cigarettes due to targeted marketing – specifically 85% of black smokers use them, up from 10% black smokers who smoked menthol in the 1950s.
When it takes effect, the new rule is expected to help prevent up to 650,000 premature tobacco-related deaths over the next 40 years, according to a study published in the journal tobacco control. “This is good news, but it’s long overdue,” says Minneapolis City Councilwoman LaTrisha Vetaw, also a longtime supporter of banning menthol cigarettes.
Once implemented, FDA regulations will apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers. The FDA said it “cannot and will not object to individual consumers for possession or use” of these products.
The FDA announcement is a huge step forward for advocates like Vetaw, who lost his father to a heart attack. “He died with a pack of menthol cigarettes in his pocket and a note from his doctor to quit,” Vetaw says, adding that his sister and nieces and nephews are also smokers.
Before being elected to city council, Vetaw spent years as a health policy and advocacy executive at the NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis, where she got a front-row seat to see what menthol cigarettes did. to communities of color in Minneapolis. Angered by what she saw at work and in her own family, she applied for grants to start community withdrawal programs and advocated for bans that ultimately led to small victories, such as restricting the sale of menthol cigarettes to adult-only tobacconists and liquor stores. through the city. “But the tobacco industry is smart,” says Vetaw. “Whenever you work on a ban, [the tobacco industry] think about something else. The work will never end.
The Roots of Menthol in Black Communities
For years, magazines, billboards, and advertisements specifically targeting black Americans have blanketed communities of color touting menthol cigarettes. Tobacco companies have gone so far as to sponsor local sporting and cultural events to gain support and attract these same communities. “It was initially white housewives they were targeting,” says Vetaw. “The taste was less harsh, so we thought it would appeal more to women, but it didn’t take. Instead, it spilled over into the black community.
Beginning in the 1950s, the tobacco industry viewed black Americans as a promising growth market for menthol cigarettes. “I don’t know who sat in a conference room and said, ‘Let’s target black communities,’ but all of a sudden there were free samples in all the stores and nightclubs in the areas to large population of black people,” says Vetaw. “They would come in vans with swag for gigs and festivals. I don’t know if they saw the sales increase first or if the marketing tactics were just tried and worked, but who doesn’t like free stuff? »
The goal of advocates like Vetaw and Turner isn’t just to get flavored tobacco products off the shelves. This is to prevent people from starting to smoke altogether; research shows that menthol cigarettes cause people to smoke. At first, menthol makes cigarettes taste smoother and more pleasant. But once inhaled, the aromatic additive enhances the effects of nicotine, accelerating the path to addiction. Therefore, smokers of menthol cigarettes are less likely to quit than non-menthol smokers because it is more difficult to quit.
While at her mother’s bedside during her final days, Turner wrote the most moving and passionate poem of her life about the effects menthol cigarettes had on her mother and her family. She spoke directly to the tobacco industry without hiding anything. Shortly after submitting it to a local contest, she found out she had won, which gave her a bigger platform to spread her message. “I called my mom at the hospital the day I performed the poem and let her hear it, and she was crying on the other end of the line,” Turner recalled. “I may have lost my superhero, but I never give up.”