Though I’ve never been a habitual cigarette smoker, I have smoked cigarettes before. In those cases, it was in Las Vegas where smoking is legally permitted indoors. I likely was holding a dirty martini with extra olives in one hand while doing my best to imitate the way Givenchy-clad Audrey Hepburn held her oversized cigarette holder in the other. I’m sure I threw my head back in laughter every few minutes though nothing actually warranted it. In summary, I was playing at smoking cigarettes the way I’d seen it done in movies and Ebony magazine advertisements.
Cigarette smoke never seemed appealing to me. I don’t like the lingering scent in my hair, clothing and furniture. I’m terrible at keeping track of small things like lighters. I would never be disciplined enough to buy a new pack of cigarettes before running out of the old. And there’s no way, I would go out in bad weather (in states that outlaw indoor smoking) just to get a fix. Plus, what kind of cigarettes would I smoke? There are so many brands! So many sizes! Having always been a choosy shopper, the act of selecting my preferred cigarette type and brand seemed like an exhausting and expensive chore.
But I know plenty of brothers and sisters who smoke menthols. Newport specifically. I’d recognize that green and white box anywhere.
The Newport ads were regular fixtures in my life. Between the pages of Ebony, Essence and Jet at home and at the beauty salon. On billboards above the local corner store where I’d buy Now-and-Later candies. Bright and life-sized on bus shelters as I waited to catch the Number 2 to the Sereno Transfer Center. Always attractive Black couples with their heads thrown back in laughter and a cigarette in hand. Or beautiful, model-esque Black women in the finest, most fashion-forward attire, their cigarettes seeming to be the perfect accessory. Or brothers on a basketball court, mouths wide open in ecstatic smiles as they vied for the basket. They weren’t simultaneously smoking cigarettes as they played, but the Newport box was in the corner of the ad. Perhaps they would breathlessly smoke after their pickup game.
All of these ads and their prevalence in my life, in my predominantly-black community, were not by accident. According to TobaccoFreeFlorida.com:
For years, the tobacco industry has heavily targeted African Americans with menthol cigarette marketing through culturally-tailored advertising images and messages. Their marketing has worked. In the U.S., nearly nine out of 10 black smokers aged 12 years and older prefer menthol cigarettes. In fact, African-American cigarette smokers are nearly 11 times more likely to use menthol cigarettes than white smokers.
Since tobacco companies strategically place advertising in a larger amount of African-American publications, black communities have been more exposed to cigarette ads than white communities. There are also more tobacco retailers located in African-American and other minority neighborhoods. And tobacco companies strategically create price promotions, like discounts and multi-pack coupons, which are most often used by African-Americans and other minority groups. Retail outlets in black communities even give menthol cigarettes more shelf space.
This well-researched website cited many studies as their sources including this one here that arrived at the following results in 2013:
Among cigarette smokers, menthol cigarette use was more common among 12-17 year olds (56.7%) and 18-25 year olds (45.0%) than among older persons (range 30.5% to 34.7%). In a multivariable analysis, menthol use was associated with being younger, female and of non-Caucasian race/ethnicity.
I, Nikki (as a youth) was the target audience for Newport. And they did an excellent job in reaching me.
TobaccoFreeFlorida.com goes on to cite other studies which explain how menthol cigarettes are indeed more addictive by design:
Menthol makes cigarette smoking easier to start and harder to quit. Menthol flavoring allows the lungs to expand further, and allows more of the toxic and cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke to be absorbed into the body, which can lead to addiction, disease and death.
But SFCancer.org really gave me pause on how intentional this targeting of me and my community is:
Dr. Valerie Yerger, a health policy researcher from the University of California at San Francisco, talked about how nicotine accumulates in tissues containing melanin. “Melanin is what gives Black people their skin color; because Blacks tend to have higher levels of melanin than whites, Blacks are more likely to hold more nicotine in their bodies than whites. For decades, the tobacco industry has known about this relationship between nicotine and melanin.”
So to answer today’s question, Blacks smoke menthols because that’s what tobacco companies—specifically RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company—want them to do.