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The industry appropriated elements of Black culture and heavily invested advertising dollars into African American publications.

Refuting tobacco industry talking points

Why is removing the sale of menthols an equity issue?

For decades, the tobacco industry specifically marketed menthols to African American communities. The industry appropriated elements of Black culture and heavily invested advertising dollars into African American publications. They are known for sponsoring Black events like the KOOL Jazz festival, saturating urban Black neighborhood stores with ads, and pricing menthols more cheaply in Black neighborhoods. As a result of their efforts, 85% of African American smokers choose menthols while less than 30% of white smokers prefer menthols.

Isn’t tobacco use an issue of personal responsibility?

At one point, it was common for tobacco industry representatives to distribute free samples of their deadly product to underage youth, handing them out from mobile units in Black neighborhoods like an ice cream truck. To this day, tobacco companies donate millions of dollars to institutions, co-opting the reputations of historically Black colleges and universities, African American newspapers, civic leaders, researchers, and elected officials, to lend credibility to their misleading assertion that mentholated tobacco products are no less addictive than other forms of tobacco. However, research shows that quitting menthols is more difficult than quitting tobacco without this characterizing flavor. African Americans consistently report more but less successful attempts at quitting menthols. It is possible that tobacco use is not as personal of a choice as many assume.

I heard a rumor that the law that will remove menthol from cigarettes could lead to increased policing in Black communities. Is this true?

This is a tobacco industry argument that exploits the real issues of police brutality and mass incarceration. Excessive force and systemic racism are problems that must be addressed independently of public health measures. The FDA rule would stop manufacturers from adding menthol as a flavor ingredient into cigarettes - that’s it. It does not penalize or open the door for police to stop people from smoking, buying, or having menthol cigarettes. Some state and local laws remove flavored tobacco products from shelves and only regulate retail stores, not individual people.


Will removing menthol from cigarettes lead to the creation of an illegal market?

All evidence points to no. Economic data from countries like Canada (that have already removed menthol cigarettes from their markets) and the United States show that, after removing menthol and other flavored cigarettes, there was no substantial increase in the illicit trade of menthol cigarettes internationally or domestically. In other words, these laws do not create an entire illegal market. Remember, the United States already removed all other flavors (like grape and strawberry) except for menthol and tobacco in 2009. There was no illicit trade market created as a result and economists say it is extremely unlikely if the FDA added menthol to that list of already prohibited flavors in cigarettes. The industry pushing this claim about illegal menthol markets plays into harmful stereotypes against African Americans as it asserts Black people will turn to criminal activity. In reality, surveys show that if menthol were removed from the market it would actually encourage African Americans to quit menthols and treat nicotine addiction rather than seek it from a "black market."

Is the FDA just trying to take away our personal freedom?

Flavors were already removed from cigarettes in 2009, except for menthol. Like food, drugs, cleaning products and cosmetics, the FDA regulates products that threaten the public’s health or safety. They do not regulate personal choices.

A few Black leaders are saying we should be cautious of this policy. If removing menthol would save Black lives and wouldn’t have these “unintended consequences,” then why are they saying the law is bad?

The tobacco industry has a significant history of targeting and exploiting the Black community for corporate gain. Their extensive marketing research revealed that young, Black kids significantly influence consumer culture. As a result, the industry has done everything such as sponsoring Black culture events (like the KOOL Jazz Festival), buying ad space in Black publications, donating heavily to Black politicians, and paying influential community leaders of the African American community. The tobacco industry takes advantage of the economic and political disadvantage facing African American businesses, public officials, and others. You can look back at the tobacco industry’s own ads from the 1990s as they tried to stop laws that protect the air in restaurants and stores from smoke. The misinformation they are spreading now is recycled talking points shared by different speakers. Since being convicted of engaging in a dishonest and fraudulent business scheme like lying to the public that cigarettes were not bad for health and targeting children to start smoking early, the industry has had to find other people to spread their nonsense. 
What’s true is that 40,000 African Americans die from tobacco-related cancers each year. The FDA rule gets directly at the source of that death. Research shows that removing menthol from cigarettes will save up to 654,000 lives within 40 years, including the lives of 255,000 Black Americans. Black public health leaders pushed for menthol to be a top priority and many Black-led organizations, medical associations, professional associations, and public interest groups support the FDA rule. The tobacco industry profits off of devastation and death and we must not tolerate their lies being spread by anyone, even those in our community.

What does this mean for public officials who represent us but do not support the removal of menthol and other flavored tobacco products?

There is overwhelming evidence and genuine community support for laws that remove these poisonous products from the market. We know removing menthol would save lives and is good for Black health. If public officials aim to represent the interests of all their constituents, including Black people, they will support these laws. Sharing this information with your family, friends, faith community, and public officials will help ensure our public officials are held accountable for action on Black health or lack thereof.

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