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Racism & Injustice

Menthol cigarettes and the Black community

Published Feb 23, 2022
Parents and children

Back in the day, it was common for the makers of menthol cigarettes, such as Newport or Kool, to sponsor music festivals and use popular artists and musicians to promote their products, particularly to communities of color.  

History of deliberate addiction

These promotions were meant to look like community support, but that’s simply not true. These sponsorships, which included handing out cigarettes for free, were simply part of Big Tobacco’s master plan to get and keep Black people hooked on menthol cigarettes. It was predatory targeting and customer recruitment all dressed up as support for the Black community. Unfortunately, it worked, and nearly 70% of adult Black/African American smokers in California smoke menthol cigarettes, the highest rate of any group.1

Menthol has been a recruitment tool for far too long. Big Tobacco has added menthol flavoring to cigarettes for nearly a century to mask tobacco’s harsh taste, making the toxic smoke easier to inhale.2 But that ease comes with a price. The smoothness of menthol allows smokers to inhale more deeply, so harmful particles can settle lower in the lungs.3 Menthol cigarettes are also harder to stop – people who use menthol cigarettes have a harder time quitting.45

A loophole that could have saved thousands of Black lives

The year 2009 could have been the end of menthol-flavored cigarettes. That year the Tobacco Control Act passed by the federal government banned all flavored cigarettes, except menthol, which is a flavor! Big Tobacco got a huge loophole put into the Act, claiming menthol cigarettes preserved smokers’ choice, particularly among African Americans. 

Time has shown Big Tobacco’s real intent. In the last 10 years, smoking cigarettes overall decreased, but the proportion of people using menthol cigarettes sharply increased compared to regular cigarettes. Menthol cigarettes are far more common among youth and young adults than adult smokers over age 30.6 

Make no mistake: Menthol cigarettes cost lives. It’s estimated that more than the 320,000 deaths would have been averted by 2050 had the menthol cigarette ban gone into effect in 2011.7

And though African Americans are only ten percent of the US population, nearly a third of saved lives would have been African Americans.

Menthol cigarettes are a big reason why Black communities experience the greatest burden of tobacco-related death of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.8

The tobacco industry has deliberately targeted African American/Black communities through the use of menthol and it has had devastating effects. You can get rid of the menthol loophole and menthol tobacco products for good. Learn more at undo.org/we-are-not-profit


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Additional information on Big Tobacco’s menthol manipulation:

  • “Tobacco is immensely destructive in African American/Black communities, causing more deaths than AIDS, accidents, and homicide combined.”– A Story of Inequity 
  • What is menthol tobacco?

Click the infographic here to learn more.

  1. 2018 California Health Interview Survey.
  2. Kreslake JM, Wayne GF, Alpert HR, Koh HK, Connolly GN. Tobacco industry control of menthol in cigarettes and targeting of adolescents and young adults. Am J Public Health. 2008;98(9):1685–1692. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.125542.
  3. Kreslake JM, Yerger VB. Tobacco industry knowledge of the role of menthol in chemosensory perception of tobacco smoke. Nicotine Tob Res. 2010;12 Suppl 2:S98–S101. doi:10.1093/ntr/ntq208.
  4. Levy DT, Blackman K, Tauras J, et al. Quit attempts and quit rates among menthol and nonmenthol smokers in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(7):1241–1247. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300178.
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Preliminary scientific evaluation of the possible public health effects of menthol versus nonmenthol cigarettes. July 2013.
  6. Villanti AC, Mowery PD, Delnevo CD, Niaura RS, Abrams DB, Giovino GA. Changes in the prevalence and correlates of menthol cigarette use in the USA, 2004-2014. Tob Control. 2016;25(Suppl 2):ii14–ii20. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053329.
  7. Levy DT, Pearson JL, Villanti AC, Blackman K, Vallone D, Abrams D. Modeling the future effects of a menthol ban on reduced smoking prevalence and deaths averted in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(7):1236-1240.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tobacco Use Among U.S. Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups—African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 1998.

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Hold the industry accountable

California has already protected people from other harmful products, and it's time to hold the tobacco industry to the same standards.