Posted on March 18, 2011

FDA Weighs Ban on Newports, Other Menthol Cigarettes

Rita Rubin, USA Today, March 15, 2011


Today, black smokers are four times more likely to choose menthols than white smokers. (Gardiner quit smoking long ago.) By 2005, half of black smokers smoked Newports, the most popular menthol brand.

Gardiner [Phillip Gardiner], a scientist with the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program at the University of California Office of the President, calls this the “African-Americanization of menthol cigarette use.” Once a niche product smoked mainly by women, menthols became the cigarette of choice for black smokers thanks in part to targeted marketing in urban centers and in publications aimed at black readers.

Now the Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes, fueling a debate about how such a move would impact African Americans. {snip} Lorillard, maker of Newports, and R.J. Reynolds, maker of Kools, filed a lawsuit Feb. 25 to block the committee’s recommendations. The suit alleges that the committee can’t provide fair advice because three members have conflicts of interest.


The latest draft chapter, posted Monday in advance of the panel’s meeting Thursday and Friday, cites a 2010 report that found African Americans across-the-board–no matter their income, age, sex, marital status, region, education, age they started or length of time smoking–are more likely to smoke menthols than any other racial or ethnic group.

Newports are the lifeblood of Lorillard, the oldest U.S. tobacco company, which has framed the debate as a civil rights issue. One Lorillard ad, with a photo of an African-American woman, bears the headline “Freedom of Choice for Grown-ups” and states “informed grown-ups who decide to smoke should have the freedom to choose menthol cigarettes.”

In op-ed pieces published on a number of websites over the past few months, Jessie Lee, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Malik Aziz, national chair of the National Black Police Association, argue that a menthol cigarette ban would lead to an illegal market.


Research has shown that flavored cigarettes attract young new smokers. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed by President Obama in June 2009, authorized the FDA to ban all cigarette flavors except minty menthol, whose brands represent more than a quarter of cigarettes sold in the USA.


“Banning flavored cigarettes, which mask the harshness of tobacco–something that can deter some first-time smokers, especially children–is a positive move,” they [seven former HHS or HEW secretaries and one surgeon general in an open letter to Congress] wrote. “But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans.”


In an interview, David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, maker of Kools and three other menthol brands, disputed the notion that tobacco companies market menthols more heavily to blacks. “We market our brands to all adults who chose to smoke, regardless of their ethnic background,” Howard said. “All of our marketing approaches are to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.”

Documents released

One need only scan the Internet for images of menthol cigarette ads from the 1960s and 1970s to gain some insight into their popularity among black smokers.

Many feature carefree African-American models or celebrities. Phillip Gardiner says ads featuring Kool spokesman Elston Howard of the Yankess, the first black player to win the American League’s Most Valuable Player award, helped woo him in the 1960s.

A 1978 internal Lorillard memo, with the subject “Black Marketing Research–Findings & Recommended Actions to Date,”suggests such promotions as calendars depicting black athletes and black women and distribution of free Newport samples at “Black conventions, expos, etc.”

That industry document is one of thousands released as a result of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and 46 states. They provide an inside look at how the industry forged ties with African-American organizations such as the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the NAACP. (Despite its name, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is a totally separate organization.)


Lorillard provided economic support to the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Conference of Black Mayors and others, according to the documents. R.J. Reynolds did so with the National Black Police Association, the National Urban League and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, among others, the documents show.

Neither Jessie Lee of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives nor Malik Aziz of the National Black Police Association replied to USA TODAY’s requests for information about their groups’ current or past relationship with Lorillard. Their recently published op-ed pieces echoed Lorillard’s argument that a menthol ban would lead to a contraband market for menthol cigarettes.

Lorillard spokesman Gregg Perry acknowledged that the company hired a public relations firm to pitch the anti-ban op-ed pieces written by leaders of African-American organizations. {snip}

Yerger says she’s puzzled black leaders would oppose a ban, since smoking-related diseases disproportionately affect African Americans. “Do they really get what’s going on in terms of the health effects on our people when it comes to smoking in general, menthol use in particular?”