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Menthol Cigarettes Impact Health Disparities Among Minorities

October 12, 2022
By Pivot
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What is menthol?

Menthol is a chemical found naturally in plants like peppermint - but can also be lab-engineered. The chemical is supposed to give a cooling sensation and is oftentimes used to relieve things like minor pain and irritation.

A brief history of menthol cigarettes

An Ohio resident by the name of Lloyd “Spud” Hughes is often credited with introducing Americans who smoke menthol cigarettes as early as 1925. Working as a cashier in a restaurant, Hughes envisioned giving someone who smokes a “cooler” cigarette. As a result, he created Spud brand cigarettes, which became the first widely sold menthol cigarette in America, and by 1932, Spuds was the fifth most popular cigarette in the country. 

Brown & Williamson tobacco company, hoping to capitalize on the success of Spud, launched its menthol brand - Kool - in 1932. The branding was whimsical, with an illustrated penguin wearing a monocle and top hat. By 1956, menthol cigarettes took off when R.J. Reynolds introduced the market’s first filter-tipped menthol cigarette, Salem. 

While the filter and menthol were no protection for those who smoked, tobacco companies promoted menthol cigarettes as “fresher” and implied that they were healthier. So much so, that early 1970s ads for Salem cigarettes highlighted the “natural” menthol, with a taste as “soft and fresh as springtime.” 

While menthol is added to products like cough drops, beverages, gums, and candies as a flavoring, none of these products are smoked or inhaled when used. The same cannot be said for menthol-flavored tobacco products. 

The harm in smoking menthol cigarettes and using menthol tobacco products

While menthol reduces the irritation in the airway and can do things like suppress coughing, giving those who smoke the illusion that they can breathe more easily, the minty taste and odor can actually mask the early warning signs of smoking-related respiratory issues. 

In fact, menthol cigarettes have been found to increase the likelihood of becoming addicted as well as the degree of addiction. Those who smoke menthol-based products are less likely to successfully quit, despite having more of an urge to actually ditch their tobacco dependence. 

This is because menthol has a complex interaction with the nicotine found in tobacco products, which in turn impacts an individual’s smoking behavior. Adding menthol to cigarettes increases fine particles, which can adversely impact heart health and increase the risk of a heart attack.

Big tobacco has specifically targeted a variety of racial/ethnic groups

The disproportionate impact on the African-American community

While there isn’t conclusive research into why exactly the African-American consumer prefers menthol cigarettes, one can look to the incessant and relentless targeted marketing campaigns to seemingly lock the preference in place. 

Tobacco company research data unearthed from the early 1950s showed a slight preference for menthol Kools amongst African-American consumers. Firms moved fast with this information, looking to capitalize by marketing menthol cigarettes directly to African-American consumers. Tobacco firms used African-American spokespeople to promote menthol Kools in the 1950s, like New York Yankees pitcher Elston Howard. 

Insidious advertising comes to a headway

With the rise of soul music and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the tobacco industry began to advertise even more heavily toward the African-American community. Magazines specifically began to sell around one-third of their ad space to tobacco companies, working to create a positive narrative surrounding tobacco use. 

And more alarming, tobacco marketers even gave out free menthol cigarette samples to children in predominately African-American neighborhoods throughout the United States, despite the clear illegality of it. This, alongside saturating these neighborhoods with cheap prices and coupons, has continued to spread the pervasiveness of menthol-based tobacco products. 

The impact of such efforts is still felt today

The impact of such groundwork laid by the tobacco industry has been the subject of countless hours of research and litigation on the grounds of discrimination. So much so, that one study quantified the disproportionate harms from menthol cigarettes to African-Americans and found that they were responsible from 1980 - 2018 for: 

  • 1.5 million new people who smoke every year
  • 157,000 smoking-related premature deaths 
  • 1.5 million life years lost amongst the African-American population

Menthol cigarettes hinder health equity

Due to these aforementioned insidious practices, big tobacco companies have strategically marketed their menthol-based products over the years to appeal to not just the African-American community, but also to a broad swath of minority communities. 

These efforts have resulted in

  • Around 8 in 10 African-Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes
  • 48% of Asian individuals who smoke prefer menthol cigarettes
  • Half of all youth who smoke do so by using menthol-based products
  • Menthol cigarette use is more popular among LGBTQIA+ individuals (49%) 

While these numbers showcase the impact that menthol cigarettes have had on minority communities, they don’t tell the story of what is currently being done to solve the problem. 

Actions currently being taken to decrease menthol cigarette prevalence

At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, is currently evaluating whether to ban the manufacturing and distribution of menthol cigarettes. This ban would be focused on addressing health inequities, culminating from years of industry targeting and menthol, not on the list of banned flavors in cigarettes. 

At the state and local level, action has been taken to prohibit the sale of things like flavored tobacco products, which include menthol cigarettes. But these are simply pieces of a larger picture on the road to a future free from all tobacco. 

But there are steps you can take today

While these efforts will offset a portion of the health inequity sowed by the tobacco industry, after banning menthol tobacco-based products, there will still be the need for a holistic, behavioral approach to treating tobacco addiction at its root, no matter how it evolves. That’s where Pivot comes in.

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