Azure’De M. Williams
Executive Director, Milwaukee Area Health Education Center
Co-Chair, Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Control Coalition
On June 3, the Milwaukee Courier published an op-ed titled, “Prohibitions and Bans: Serious Unintended Consequences,” in which the authors argued that a ban of menthol cigarettes, a product used by 80 percent of African American smokers, would negatively impact black communities. The article made several important points: including blacks have made significant advances, but too many continue to be burdened by poverty, a lack of financial and educational opportunities and poor health. The article also acknowledges that tobacco use contributes to health inequalities that persist for blacks in America.
In reference to smoking specifically, its authors wrote, “We do stand united with policymakers, public health professionals and tobacco control advocates – Smoking is bad and not good for public health.” That’s a major understatement, especially when considering its impact on African Americans. Tobacco use is the leading cause of premature death for African Americans in the United States, claiming the lives of more than 47,000 annually. Tobacco use is linked to 63 percent of cancer related deaths of African American men. Here in Wisconsin, the disparities are especially stark, with 36 percent of African Americans smoking compared to 17 percent of the general population.
While significantly understating tobacco’s impact on the health of African Americans, there was another glaring omission in the op-ed: The proliferation of menthol cigarettes, which are more dangerous than non-menthol cigarettes, in the black community is no accident. Using culturally tailored messages and images, tobacco companies targeted urban, poor, African American communities through the media in the 1960s and beyond, and they cynically used philanthropy to gain favor within communities of color.
Many can recall the “menthol wars” of the 1980s, in which tobacco companies with brands such as Newport, Salem and Kool openly competed for market share in the black community by offering free cigarette packs at high-traffic areas and popular street corners. In addition, the practice of flooding African American communities with menthol tobacco advertising is also historic, which leads to an increase in tobacco use nationally among low-income African Americans, according to the Center for Public Health and Tobacco Policy.
Needless to say, the impact of targeted marketing of menthol products has been devastating. Tobacco is the leading contributor to the three main causes of death among African Americans: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. African- American youth have not been spared either, as the menthol flavor cuts down on the harshness of the cigarettes which makes them easier to inhale, easier to get hooked on and harder to quit. Nine out of every 10 African American smokers aged 12 year and older preferring menthol cigarettes, according to the Center for Disease Control.
The authors of the op-ed closed with the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr. — “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” In the spirit of those words, the time is now to take a stand against tobacco companies who manipulate and target our communities with addictive and deadly menthol products. The health of our next generation is at stake.