A recent survey found that a large majority of Black smokers (85%) smoke menthol cigarettes. A historian has analyzed how the tobacco industry successfully targeted minorities by creating a lasting preference for the minty, icy, and habit-forming product. He argues that this was achieved by the industry studying the black community in detail, including its influencers, barbers, bookmakers, and periodicals.
The marketing of the tobacco industry targeted black Americans. Menthol ads feature young models and often use words like “cool” or “fresh” to communicate that the cigarettes are not only a cool treat but also less harmful than ‘full flavor’ or non-mentholated brands. These messages imply that smoking a menthol cigarette is less damaging to one’s health than regular cigarettes, a perception supported by research showing that menthol smokers are more likely to perceive their product as mild or safer than others. The companies sought out influence-makers in a community — a barber, a bellhop or a numbers runner — and handed them free samples of their products. In addition, the companies promoted menthol cigarettes through Black periodicals and gave money to groups.
Today, menthol cigarette advertising continues to use similar messaging to appeal to Black youth. For example, ad campaigns featuring the brand Kool portray the smoke as cool and fresh. In addition, ad campaigns featuring women are more likely to promote menthol cigarettes than campaigns featuring men. It is because ad campaigns targeting women are more likely to emphasize the perception that a menthol cigarette is more feminine than a regular cigarette and a means of signaling in-group belonging among women.
For many years, the tobacco industry has aggressively marketed menthol cigarettes to Black communities, especially young people. This predatory practice has horrifiedly impacted the lives and health of generations of Black people, whose higher rates of smoking-related disease and death are directly linked to using menthol cigarettes. In the 1960s, Brown & Williamson and other tobacco giants began investing significant resources into targeting African American communities through various marketing tactics. These included sponsoring music festivals and using popular artists and musicians to promote their products, including Newport and Kool. The companies also gave money to several Black periodicals. Many people think that menthol cigarettes are less harmful than regular ones because of their minty flavor, but they are just as dangerous and much more addictive. Research shows that 85% of Black smokers start with a menthol brand, and the vast majority of those smokers choose to continue smoking menthol. As such, a ban on menthol cigarettes would significantly reduce the use of this deadly product in Black communities.
For decades, menthol makers focused their advertising on Black folks, especially young ones. They deluged urban centers with menthol ads on billboards, buses and subways, promoted the product in popular Black magazines, sponsored community and music events and handed out free cigarettes to kids at school and in stores. The company even paid Black athletes and entertainers to endorse the products and featured them in leading Black newspapers and magazines in menthol ads. The industry’s pervasive marketing of menthol cigarettes has had a devastating impact on Black communities. Menthol cigarettes are more addictive, make it easier for young people to start smoking, and are harder to quit. It explains why they are responsible for a disproportionate number of smoking-related illnesses and fatalities among Black Americans. Refusing menthol cigarettes would help break the tobacco industry’s deadly grip on our communities. But some groups argue that a ban will make things worse by fueling a black market for the products and adding more burdens to local law enforcement. That argument is akin to treating black people as children who lack the moral agency to make their own choices and are powerless against the allure of minty coolness. It is also the same argument tobacco companies use to justify racial profiling and predatory marketing of their products to Black consumers.
As the nation grapples with racial disparities in menthol cigarette use, the tobacco industry has used targeted marketing for decades. From the 1950s, they’ve used “urban culture and language,” sponsored music and community events with free menthol cigarettes, and promoted the brand in magazines and through retail promotions. This pervasive marketing strategy helped menthol cigarettes gain widespread popularity in Black communities, making up 85% of all smokers. Black neighborhoods experience twice as many menthol cigarette price promotions at neighborhood retailers than white neighborhoods. It results from the tobacco industry’s racially targeted marketing, a key strategy in their drive for new customers. This marketing focuses on the shared experience of communities of color, such as their pride in cultural and ethnic identity, heritage and history, and sense of belonging. The tobacco industry knows that targeting these communities and promoting products in line with these identities can sell more cigarettes. The tobacco industry’s predatory marketing has devastated Black people and other minority communities, and it needs to stop now. Truth Initiative is proud to partner with community leaders, activists and youth to call for a nationwide ban on flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.