The Biden administration announced this month that the Food and Drug Administration will begin the rule-making process to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. This bold effort has the potential to protect youth from tobacco addiction, save lives, and decrease serious health impacts, especially among Black tobacco users. It is no accident that 85% of Black smokers choose menthol cigarettes. For more than 60 years, the tobacco industry has been deliberately targeting the Black community with menthol cigarettes — which are even more addictive and harder to quit than regular cigarettes — profiting enormously while endangering Black lives and health.
In the 1950s, fewer than 10% of Black Americans who smoked used menthol cigarettes — today, that number is 85%. Menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products continue to be heavily advertised, widely available, and priced cheaper in Black communities, making them appear more appealing and more accessible to young people.
Now, amid the shocking racial health disparities amplified by COVID-19, we cannot continue to ignore the industry’s intentional targeting of young Black people.
The FDA’s rule-making process to end the sale of flavored tobacco products could take years., But we can’t sit idly by while Big Tobacco continues to prey on new generations of Black youth, who often have fewer resources and limited access to services to help them quit. We must act locally, and we must act now.
In Denver, 49.5% of public schools are within 1,000 feet of a tobacco retailer. Research shows that nearly 80% of all smokers start before the age of 18 and, not surprisingly, the vast majority of young people smoke the three most heavily advertised brands. One of these heavily advertised brands, Newport, is the cigarette brand leader among Black youth in the United States. More than two-thirds (69.1%) of youthful Black smokers choose Newport cigarettes.
Because of the devastating health impact that menthol cigarettes have had on the Black community, banning menthol cigarettes is supported by many local African American-focused organizations, including the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council — AATCLC, Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, Center for African American Health, The Center for Black Health & Equity, Colorado Black Health Collaborative, National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, National Association of Black Veterans, the Urban League Young Professionals, the NAACP Denver Branch, and the NAACP CO-MT-WY State Conference.
It’s time to end the industry’s “investment” in the Black community. We shouldn’t have to suffer the greatest burden of tobacco-related mortality of any ethnic or racial group in the United States. There is overwhelming scientific evidence to support eliminating menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, and the FDA’s decision creates a greater responsibility for local officials to act with urgency.
That’s why the NAACP is calling on Denver City Council to support a ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products. It’s the first step to reducing health disparities and ending the tobacco industry’s history of putting profits over Black lives.
Rosemary Lytle is president of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Conference.