Eighty years after a man named Lloyd “Spud” Hughes, as legend has it, accidentally mixed his tobacco with menthol crystals, Congress is fighting over whether to ban these popular flavored cigarettes.
Mentholated cigarettes started out in the 1920s with such names as Spud, Listerine, the Original Eucalyptus Smoke and Snowball. Today they’re sold as Newport, Kool and Marlboro Menthol, the smokes of choice among the black community.
Critics charge they are products designed specifically to lure young blacks into a lifetime of tobacco use.
Menthol critics point to studies that claim young blacks, who as a group are much more likely than whites to smoke menthols, have been targeted by marketing programs of cigarette manufacturers. Tobacco companies have forcefully denied targeting young people and are lobbying against any ban on menthols, which make up about a quarter of all cigarette sales.
Studies report that nearly three out of four black smokers prefer menthol brands, compared to three of 10 white smokers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A troubling development
The Congressional Black Caucus, whose members represent many of the densely populated and largely black urban centers where menthol cigarettes are most popular, is split on the menthol question as well.
Ann Goldon, health education coordinator for the Genesee County Health Department, said the high levels of smoking in her county are probably influenced by economic stress in a community that has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past 25 years.
“But look at the marketing campaigns. They seem to be targeting the African-American community,” she said.
Along major commercial strips in black neighborhoods in Flint, the signs on liquor and convenience stores promote “Newport Pleasure!” “Kool” and other menthol brands. At a north side convenience store, more than 80 percent of the cigarette sales are menthol, said Nagibe Abu Eiea, the store’s manager.
A 2002 report, “The African Americanization of menthol cigarette use in the United States,” found that tobacco companies nearly doubled their market share in the African-American community from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. Part of the campaign, the report said, was built on a perception that menthols are safer to smoke than non-menthol brands.