Menthol Cigarettes, Tobacco Companies, African Americans and Civil Rights

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Menthol, an aromatic chemical derived in particular from peppermint, has been used to flavor tobacco for 90 years. Menthol is added in small amounts to most cigarettes, but “menthol cigarettes” contain relatively high levels and this give them a strong menthol flavor. In the mid-1920s, the “Spud” cigarette was the first menthol cigarette to be produced. It was later realized by the tobacco industry that menthol cigarettes could be cleverly marketed to African Americans in particular.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the tobacco industry targeted African Americans with marketing and advertising of menthol cigarettes, in particular with the Kool brand of menthol cigarette. The industry exploited the “cool” feeling of menthol in the throat and chest and somehow equated it with being socially “cool,” then presumably replaced the “c” of “cool” with a “K” in the brand name to make is sound even cooler/ kooler/ kewler. Kools, and menthol cigarettes generally, were marketed to African Americans in the media: the cigarettes were, it was implied in their advertisements, “smoother,” less harsh to the taste, even healthier, than non-menthol cigarettes, and they great to smoke if you were young, brave and strong-willed as well as “cool.”

Tobacco companies supported black American individuals (including some involved in the Civil Rights Movement), communities and organisations (including the NAACP), but it wasn’t for the right reasons. As always with their marketing and advertising, tobacco companies have an ulterior, usually more sinister, motive for their support of any individual or organisations- that of making money. It was their way of increasing the cigarette consumption of African Americans and the profits of tobacco companies and their shareholders, and it was a huge success.

It was a clever campaign. In a survey of smokers paid for by Philip Morris in the early 1950s, only 2 % of white American smokers, and 5 % of African American smokers, smoked menthol cigarettes, whereas by the 1970s these numbers increased dramatically, especially in African Americans, and by the end of the 20th century about 30% of white American smokers used mainly menthol cigarettes, while the majority (two-thirds) of African American smokers primarily smoked menthol cigarettes.

The notion that menthol cigarettes are somehow safer and healthier than regular cigarettes is also a fallacy. Indeed, menthol appears to increase the nicotine levels absorbed by smokers, so raising blood levels of nicotine and reinforcing nicotine addiction in those who smoke menthol cigarettes. In a nutshell, menthol cigarettes may be more addictve than regular cigarettes.

Menthol cigarettes are also more likely to be smoked by youth, women and poor people.

African Americans seem to be more prone to tobacco addiction and have a more difficult time quitting smoking than white Americans. One study found that only 3 % of African Americans who quit smoking sustained their smoking abstinence, whereas 6 % of white Americans maintained their abstinence, 6 months after quitting. The finding also shows just how difficult it is for any smoker- whatever their skin colour- to quit smoking, when about 95 % started smoking again within six months after their attempt to quit!



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