The Daily Beast

The Ridiculously Racist History of Menthol Cigarettes

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When the Biden Food and Drug Administration announced its plan to ban menthols, it cited the fact that “out of all Black smokers, nearly 85 percent smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 30 percent of White smokers who smoke menthols.” Other kinds of flavored cigarettes—which apparently once included cinnamon, toffee, vanilla and bourbon, among so many other disgusting tobacco flavor profiles—were banned back in 2009, but not menthols, which continued to be sold. In 2011 and 2013, an FDA advisory committee reported that menthols aren’t any more toxic than other cigarettes, but suggested the minty flavoring mitigates “the harshness of smoke and the irritation from nicotine,” an effect that “may increase the likelihood of nicotine addiction” and make it harder than other cigarettes to quit. “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace,” researchers concluded in a resulting paper, “would benefit the public health.”

The FDA has promised, cross-their-heart-and-hope-to die style, that the proposed ban on menthols won’t end up criminalizing Black folks for personal possession, to which the ACLU issued a highly relevant reminder-counterpoint. “Policies that amount to prohibition have serious racial justice implications,” the organization wrote, noting that “criminal penalties…will disproportionately impact” Black people, who police have killed for infractions that specifically include the selling of loose cigarettes. But the ban has been applauded by groups including The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and the NAACP, which issued a statement calling out cigarette manufacturers for “targeting African Americans…on a narrow quest for profit, and they have been killing us along the way.”

One thing that there’s no disagreement about is that the history of menthol cigarette marketing to Black folks is rich with racist stereotypes and the worst of intentions. Consider the case of Marie Evans, whose son was awarded $152 million in total damages in 2010 in his wrongful death lawsuit against Lorillard Tobacco Company, the manufacturer of Newports. In her 2002 video deposition, taken just weeks before she died of lung cancer, Marie recounted how Lorillard trucks in the late 1950s would roll into the Roxbury housing project where she grew up and hand out sample cigarette packs to Black adults—and young kids, too. As early as age 9, Marie was given Newports she would then trade for candy. At age 13, she started smoking, a habit she spent much of the rest of her life trying and failing to quit. Testifying at trial, Marie’s younger sister also recalled getting Newports from the same Lorillard van, which she said “looked like a Frosty truck.”

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