Menthol cigarettes account for about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States, and they are particularly popular among black smokers–about four out of five report smoking them, according to federal surveys.
The effects are devastating: About 45,000 African-Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses–the largest cause of preventable death, more than homicides, AIDS and car accidents. Black men have the highest lung cancer mortality rate of any demographic group.
Three years ago, the Food and Drug Administration seemed poised to take action. It said research showed that the mint flavoring made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, meaning that the substance harmed public health, a finding that activists and experts believed laid the groundwork for banning menthol.
But nothing has happened, and on Tuesday, a group of African-American activists and health experts made an appeal to President Obama, arguing that the issue was not only one of health, but also of social justice.
“What we’re trying to do is involve the president of the United States in this discussion,” said Phillip Gardiner, a chairman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “We die disproportionately of cancer-related diseases. Part of what has taken place here is the use of menthol cigarettes.”
Black leaders have tried for years to get the federal government to deal with menthol without success. One obstacle has been divisions among African-Americans on the issue. The tobacco industry had long provided economic support to African-American organizations like the N.A.A.C.P., according to industry documents made public during the federal government’s settlement with tobacco companies in 1998, which weakened the fight.
But that might be changing. An invigorated public conversation about race in the United States seems to be breathing new life into the issue. In July, the N.A.A.C.P. voted to support state and local efforts to restrict the sale of menthol cigarettes, a drastic departure from the past.