Targeted menthol cigarette ads helped lead to high Black usage. Should they be banned?

Targeted menthol cigarette ads helped lead to high Black usage. Should they be banned?

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith

After decades of Big Tobacco advertisements splattered across billboards, tucked inside buses and hung outside corner stores in Black and Latino neighborhoods, Henry McNeil “Mandrake” Brown had seen enough.

Using the alias “Mandrake,” Brown started painting over cigarette and alcohol advertisements in his Chicago community in the 1980s and 1990s, according to historians and media archives. He called the advertisements a multipronged practice “to sustain and expand sales to minorities, to women and the poor.”

At the same time, a handful of Black leaders and doctors were fighting against an overabundance of these advertisements in African American communities compared with whiter areas. The Rev. Calvin Butts, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, painted over billboards in New York City.

Uptown cigarettes, a mentholated brand geared directly to Black consumers — would’ve been tested in Philadelphia, but grassroots opposition and resistance from then-Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan led R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to cancel those plans in 1990. After the release of director Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” a tobacco company created Menthol X, which was booted in 1995 after a significant outcry. Its box featured a large X like the film’s poster and the Pan-African flag colors — black, red, and green, according to newspaper archives.

These earlier forms of resistance are, in many ways, fundamental to the Food and Drug Administration’s move to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. The public can submit comments on the proposed change through Aug. 2, according to the FDA.

Over the course of decades, marketing menthol cigarettes to Black people fostered an environment where today, most Black smokers use the product.

“The net result of these predatory marketing strategies is the Black community is suffering unfairly and disproportionately from tobacco-related disease,” according to a statement from the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, a health care advisory task force for the caucus.

Dr. Alan Blum, director of the University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, said when it comes to Black people smoking menthols, “advertising works.”

“If in Ebony and Jet and billboards and convenience stores the only brands you see advertised are menthol brands, there’s no mystery,” he said.

The proposed ban has caused a divide within the Black community. Anti-smoking advocates and many in the medical community who support the ban have pointed out that smoking contributes to cancer, and African Americans are more likely to develop and die of lung cancer. 

On the other side, some Black clergy, law enforcement groups, and publications — many of whom have received money or advertisement revenue from the tobacco industry — say Black people have the choice to use mentholated products and that banning them could lead to negative interactions with police.


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