Lorillard Inc., maker of the U.S.’s leading menthol cigarette brand, is engaged in a fierce battle to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from banning a product that accounts for roughly 90% of its sales.
An FDA committee is weighing a ban of menthol cigarettes, which have been marketed to African Americans for years. Such a move is being fought by Lorillard, which is dependent on its Newport brand, and some black business groups.
Among the company’s tactics: buying up a host of menthol-bashing Internet domain names, including MentholKillsMinorities.com, MentholAddictsYouth.com and FDAMustBanMenthol.com.
Keeping those names out of the hands of critics is just one part of Lorillard’s multimedia campaign to thwart a possible ban. The fight’s next round is scheduled for next week, when a special FDA tobacco advisory committee is scheduled to meet to review data regarding menthol products. In March, the panel will recommend whether to extinguish menthol cigarettes altogether–including Lorillard’s top-selling Newport brand.
Some antismoking groups are pressing for the variety to be taken off shelves. They say menthol is particularly enticing to blacks, who have long been a target of menthol marketing campaigns, and to adolescent smokers.
Newport is especially popular with African-American smokers, about 80% of whom prefer menthol cigarettes, according to U.S.-government survey data.
Menthol, a compound that occurs naturally in mint plants, has been added to cigarettes since the 1920s. It acts as a mild local anesthetic and provides a cooling sensation in the mouth and throat, similar to that of a mentholated cough drop. Critics say the flavoring masks the harsh taste of cigarettes, making them more appealing to young people. A federal survey published in 2009 showed that 45% of smokers aged 12 to 17 use menthol brands.
African-Americans have a slightly higher adult smoking rate than the national population. About 21.3% of black adults smoke, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control report, compared with 20.6% of all Americans. Blacks also have a disproportionately high rate of smoking-related disease.
Through the decades, minorities increasingly gravitated to menthol brands such as Newport, Kool and Salem as tobacco companies ratcheted up magazine and billboard ads depicting carefree black smokers. In surveys, blacks often express a taste preference for menthol cigarettes.
A Morgan Stanley survey of 878 smokers published in December found that 40% of Newport smokers would most likely try to quit upon a menthol ban. Twenty-six percent of the 191 Newport smokers polled were unsure what they would do and 15% said they would switch to non-menthol cigarettes.
Peer-reviewed scientific studies have drawn mixed conclusions as to whether menthol-cigarette users find it harder to quit. Meanwhile, there’s scant evidence that smokers of menthol varieties are at a greater risk for smoking-related disease. Only one large epidemiological study has found a higher risk of lung cancer, and only in men.
The domain registrations are disturbing to William S. Robinson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network in Durham, N.C. It “makes me mad that they would declare war in a quiet way on those who are trying to protect the public health,” he says.
On Oct. 28, for example, Lorillard linked on Twitter to an Oct. 19 editorial from Afro.com, an African-American news website. The piece appeared under the byline of Jessie Lee, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
A similar article ran in the Washington Times on Oct. 20.
Although it wasn’t disclosed, Mr. Lee’s editorial was pitched to news organizations by Charlotte Roy, an African-American public-relations consultant who was a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists. She is under contract to a public-relations firm paid by Lorillard, which says it has hired several communications specialists to work on the menthol issue.
Ms. Roy says one of her roles is to make African-American organizations aware of a potential menthol ban and to encourage them to express their views in the media to make them “much more widely known.”
Harry C. Alford, chief executive of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, penned an editorial circulated by Ms. Roy in which he argued against a menthol ban. Mr. Alford says Lorillard is a member of the NBCC’s public-policy council, paying $35,000 in annual dues to work with the chamber on issues of common interest. He says the editorial effort “was not in any way influenced” by the chamber’s partnership with Lorillard.
“African-Americans like their Newport cigarettes, and there is no reason why they should not be allowed to have them,” says Mr. Alford.
Such talk has angered some health advocates, especially in the black community. Dr. Louis Sullivan, who served as U.S. health secretary in the first Bush administration, says he is “very disappointed and very distressed” that some African-American groups are allowing “themselves to be used by tobacco companies.”
Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, labeled the black organizations in Lorillard’s camp as “front groups” for the tobacco industry.
Mr. Alford of the black chamber group said his organization is “no more” a front group for the tobacco industry “than I would say [the others] are front groups for antismoking lobbyists.”