Menthol cigarettes have higher carbon monoxide concentrations than regular cigarettes and may increase the risk of both lung and bronchial cancer more than regular cigarettes. (Source: smokingcessationleadership.ucsf.edu/)

Kori Skillman | BVN Staff

Three groups have taken action against the U.S. government claiming the FDA is not fulfilling its own claims regarding the betterment of public health, particularly among Black Americans, by not banning menthol products permanently. 

Through the court, the plaintiffs are demanding the FDA take direct action.

“We stand before you today to announce that we are suing the United States Food and Drug Administration for their failure to implement public health policy that protects the health and welfare of African Americans with respect to menthol cigarettes,” said Carol McGruder, founding member and Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC). 

“Our mission is to save the 45,000 Black lives lost each year from tobacco-induced diseases and we have resolutely pursued that mission since our inception.”

Menthols have a grasp on the Black community due to the ease of smoking, their cooling sensation elicits. 

Research shows that menthol cigarettes are more addictive and harder to quit. Compared to White smokers, Black smokers are more likely to try to quit but less likely to succeed. 

Brandon Kimber, a 39 year-old resident of the Inland Empire notes that he prefers menthol cigarettes to regular non “cooling” brand cigarettes because they “hit differently. They’re stronger.” He also says that menthols give him a more prominent head change depending on the time of day he starts smoking. 

“The American Medical Association has long standing policies supporting banning menthol in combustible tobacco products calling for the FDA to prohibit the use of flavoring agents in all tobacco products,” says AMA President Susan R. Bailey, M.D, “This action is long, long overdue.”

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and Action on Smoking initially filed the lawsuit in June. The American Medical Association joined the claim as a plaintiff in September. 

The lawsuit claims that even though the FDA published its own research on the dangers of menthol cigarettes, the administration has not taken any action to combat the prevalence of menthols, particularly within the Black community.

Francine Lewis, a former menthol smoker from a predominantly Black area of San Francisco, says she started smoking menthols because, “That’s what everyone else smoked. It’s the type of cigarette to smoke, [for Black people].” 

“That’s all Black people seem to smoke,” says Todd Simpson, a Hayward native who smoked consistently for almost 39 years.

Personal Accounts 

Kimber, Lewis and Simpson are three Black California residents who have experienced the hold of the American tobacco industry. Though their stories of smoking are different, all three claim to have smoked up to a pack a day during their respective heavy smoking periods.

Lewis, 58, who started smoking menthols at 18 smoked for about 39 years consistently. She says that growing up in a predominantly Black area of San Francisco was “interesting considering her background.” 

Her mother was a smoker and an alcoholic so she spent a lot of time with her aunts. Though her aunts did not smoke, her proximity to liquor stores influenced Lewis’ decision to begin smoking. “There was a lot of liquor, smokes, and a lot of drug use. You were automatically exposed to that even if you didn’t want to be.” 

Simpson, 57, began smoking at age 16 and quit cold turkey before his 55th birthday. Simpson says his background definitely encouraged his smoking habit. His parents, grandparents and peers all smoked so it was something he just fell into based on his environment. The commercials attracted him to smoking. 

Todd Simpson (Source: Todd Simpson)

Kimber, 39 started smoking at 22 years old in 2002. By this time, smoking was not as prevalent as it was in the 1980s. Kimber recalls having one or two buddies that smoked but that it was not widespread in general, let alone amongst his friend group. He began smoking due to stress. 

Lawsuit Background

Though AATCLC and Action on Smoking were already planning to legally hold the FDA accountable, the coronavirus pandemic gave even more reason to do so. 

COVID-19  has had severe effects on Black Americans. As a virus that plagues the respiratory system, it is particularly ghastly for Black people with weakened respiratory systems, such as smokers. According to the CDC, Black Americans are 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and 1.9 times more likely to die from it compared to White Americans.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has just thrown a spotlight on the health disparities and unequal treatment faced by poor communities of color  for hundreds of years in the United States. At this time, nothing could be more helpful in saving Black Lives and ensuring that Black Lives Matter than getting the FDA to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored little cigars,” said Dr. Phillip Gardiner, founding member and co-chair of the AACLC. He stressed further they should have been removed with the rest of the flavored cigarettes. 

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed and signed into law under the Obama Administration. The prevention act made the manufacturing, advertisement and sale of flavored cigarettes illegal as they were generally marketed toward youth and new smokers. Menthol cigarettes were excluded from the ban, subject to further research. 

Research was concluded in 2011, when the FDA Advisory Committee found that the “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States. Yet, in ten years, no substantial laws against menthol cigarettes were implemented. 

Lack of laws leave Black Americans disproportionately more susceptible to the harmful effects of cigarettes.  

Kimber says he began smoking menthols because they were what he saw his aunts smoking. 

“I recognized the brand,” says Kimber. Watching his aunts smoke Newport menthols did not initially draw Kimber to smoking; but years later when he did start, his memory of his aunts made it easier for him to try menthols and eventually become hooked. He now smokes between 2 cigarettes and a full-pack a day.

“For generations, tobacco companies have promoted menthol cigarettes to the African-American community, preying especially on African-American youth,” Bailey says. “The results are clear and grim; although African-Americans usually smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at an older age, they are more likely than Whites to die from smoking related diseases.”

Insert image 2 cigarette in coffin

Roughly 17,000 American deaths would have been prevented over the past decade had the FDA included menthol cigarettes in its report in 2011. (source: facebook.com)

The organizations call on a report done by the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to highlight the Administration’s negligence in protecting the Black Americans. Roughly 17,000 American deaths would have been prevented over the past decade had the FDA included menthol cigarettes in its report in 2011; around 4,700 of those premature deaths were Black individuals and about 461,000 Black people have started smoking since, according to the plaintiffs.  

Black smokers disproportionately fall victim to menthols

“It was fashionable to hold a cigarette and cross your legs,” says Lewis, “we all started because the last person had started. We kept up with it because smoking was addictive.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2019 that 10 percent of all California adults are smokers and 17 percent of California smokers are Black, compared to 10 percent of White Californians and 10 percent of Hispanic Californians. 

According to the American Lung Association, 16.8 percent of Black Americans smoke cigarettes. Smoking-related illnesses are the leading causes of death in the Black community. Menthol cigarettes have had a longstanding hold on the Black community. Today, about 85 percent of Black smokers list menthol cigarettes as their cigarette of choice–over three times the rate of White Americans. In the 1950s, less than 10 percent of Black smokers smoked menthol cigarettes. 

Though menthols were invented in the 1920s, the tobacco industry began pushing them into Black communities primarily in the 1950s through free sampling, sponsorship of Black community events, prevalent magazine ads, etc. These insistent marketing techniques are being upheld today to ensure menthol cigarettes’ hold on Black Americans generationally. 

“In 2020, cigars were the most commonly used tobacco product among Black high school students,” according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. menthol companies continue to target “Black youth with marketing for cheap, flavored cigars, some of which can be smoked like cigarettes and can cause many of the same devastating health consequences as cigarettes.”

Lewis describes menthols as harsh, health costly and “very very addictive” saying they made her insides feel like they were burning.  Smoking menthols “really really affected my health. I just felt like I couldn’t talk right and always had a burning sensation in my throat,” she says. She also recalls not being able to walk very far and experiencing shortness of breath when she was a smoker. 

Lewis quit primarily because of her own experience with her health. “Commercials that told me what smoking does to the body and other deterrents like the smoking tax made me pay attention,” but they did not make her quit like she had hoped. It took Lewis experiencing her own health decline for her to quit her smoking habit. 

Kimber says he sees himself quitting one day but that right now smoking is not a problem for him. “People who are strong-minded in what they’re doing are going to continue doing that,” he says.