As America’s 40th Black History Month draws to a close, it’s important to call added attention to the Truth Initiative’s exploration of the historical strategic marketing of menthol products to African Americans. Its effects are still profound. According to Truth, 70 percent of African American middle and high school students who smoke use menthol cigarettes. And, while cigarette use among youth has declined, menthol use rates have remained steady. The menthol usage rate for African American adults is 88 percent.
The proliferation of menthol cigarette usage in the African American community was not by accident. Through the use of culturally tailored messages and images, the tobacco companies targeted urban, poor, African American communities through the media in the 1960s and beyond, successfully positioning the menthol products as “young, hip and healthy,” according to a 2004 study published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Tobacco companies also used philanthropy to gain favor within communities of color.
Many African Americans can also recall the “menthol wars” of the 1980s, in which tobacco companies including Newport, Salem and Kool openly competed for market share within the Black community by offering free cigarette packs through daily routes which frequented high traffic areas and popular street corners. In addition, there the practice of flooding African American communities with menthol tobacco advertising is also historic.
This past year members of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network (WAATPN) learned first hand that this practice continues by conducting environmental scans of tobacco advertising in retail establishments.
As a representative of the WAATPN, I’m hoping that others in the community, as well as state leaders, take notice of the damaging legacy of these practices and stand up against them so that history does not continue to repeat itself.