Return to News Feb 28, 2022 - Op-ed

Big Tobacco’s Black History

By Malia Cohen and Carol McGruder

It’s no accident most African Americans who smoke prefer minty menthol cigarettes or that Big Tobacco has racked up a bigger Black body count than AIDS, homicide, and accidents combined.

As Black History Month comes to a close, we must acknowledge Big Tobacco’s history of immorally profiting by destroying Black lives; from the roots of its tobacco plantations drenched in the blood and deaths of enslaved African people 400 years ago to hooking generations of Black youth on menthols and making tobacco the top killer of African Americans today. 

Black Americans die from smoking-related diseases - including heart disease, lung cancer and stroke - far more than others. These recurring tragedies are the ruthless result of tobacco companies flooding Black neighborhoods with marketing targeted at getting kids to smoke minty menthols, turning them into lifelong smokers, and profiting from addiction, disease and death. 

For decades, Black neighborhoods have been the battlegrounds and the victims of the tobacco industry’s “Menthol Wars.” New displays were developed for “urban” stores in inner-cities where retailers were paid and strictly controlled on product placement, shelf space, in-store ads, and menthol prices were kept lower. Until the mid-1990s, fleets of vans were deployed across the country to hook new Black customers through free minty menthol giveaways. Sponsorship money and promotional advertising has also been thrown at Black community events and local organizations to exploit these relationships and build minty menthol brand loyalty. 

Targeting Black neighborhoods worked. In the 1950s, fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who smoked used minty menthols. Today, it’s 85 percent. The era’s racist mindset was revealed by an executive of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company who said: “We don’t smoke that s_ _ _. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and stupid.”

Newport pioneered many tactics of the Menthol Wars. The brand’s aggressive marketing doubled its share of the minty menthol market between 1981 and 1987, and in 1993 it became the top menthol brand where it remains. 

More than two-thirds of African American youth who smoke today prefer Newports, cementing the company’s destruction of Black lives for years to come. The stark reality is nearly 1.6 million Black youth alive today will become regular smokers and about 500,000 will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease.

Tobacco companies want to replicate their predatory profits from minty menthol - the original candy-flavored cigarette - and now make fruity cigars and vapes that appeal to all our kids with sweet flavors like blue raspberry, root beer, and cotton candy. 

Their cutthroat strategy is working. Over 2 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes. In California, almost all high school e-cigarette users use flavored products. And, 4 out of 5 kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product.

In 2020, California passed a landmark law to end the sale of candy-flavored tobacco products - including minty menthol cigarettes - but the poison-peddling tobacco companies spent millions to delay the law by hijacking our referendum process. 

Working to overturn this law, which received overwhelming bipartisan support,  through November’s ballot is Big Tobacco’s last stand. Tobacco companies have spent tens of millions of dollars failing to overturn local candy flavored tobacco bans in over 100 cities and counties across California. 

By delaying our state’s tobacco flavor ban, the tobacco industry will continue raking in profits by turning tens of thousands more young students into vape users, saddling California with an $800 million health care bill because many kids who recently became smokers will remain tobacco customers for life. 

By voting to end the sale of flavored tobacco in November, we can protect kids from Big Tobacco preying on them for profit and safeguard future generations from suffering a lifetime of health problems.

Let’s turn the tables and put tobacco companies in a box.

Malia Cohen is Chair of California's State Board of Equalization and former Chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where she sponsored San Francisco’s successful 2018 flavored tobacco ban. Carol McGruder is a Founding Member and Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.