Op-Ed: Menthol cigarettes contribute to health inequities. It’s time to actACTA
The tobacco industry has historically targeted its marketing efforts on Black communities
When menthol cigarettes were first introduced nearly a century ago, tobacco companies were already aware of menthol’s ability to mask the harshness of tobacco and provide a cooling sensation that made smoking more casual and enticing to try.
Today, tobacco companies continue to employ misleading advertising tactics that brand menthol cigarettes as “cool” and “refreshing,” creating a false sense of allure that — when combined with their attractive packaging, vibrant colors and carefully curated imagery — glamorizes smoking and downplays health risks.
In a new poll of New Jersey residents, 55% of respondents say they would support a statewide ban on menthol cigarettes, with Black respondents, at 64%, representing the most support for a full menthol ban.
For more than 60 years, the tobacco industry has strategically targeted its marketing efforts of menthol cigarettes on Black communities, offering discounts and placing more ads in predominately Black neighborhoods and sponsoring Black organizations and prominent figures.
Since the 1950s, the tobacco industry has placed advertising for menthol cigarettes in magazines with high Black readership and sponsored political leaders, festivals and venues frequented by Black Americans. Marketing campaigns have featured young Black musicians, DJs and dancers on packaging and advertising, with radio giveaways and prizes involved with cigarette purchases.
This penetration of culture has fostered a sense of familiarity and established a visible presence in Black communities. By aligning themselves with influential figures, events and organizations, the tobacco industry has created an illusion of endorsement and concealed the dangers of smoking, perpetuating a cycle of tobacco addiction. As of 2020, more than 80% of Black adults who smoke cigarettes used menthol.
Research shows that menthol cigarettes are associated with increased nicotine dependence and reduced success in smoking cessation. Menthol makes it easier to start and harder to quit, especially for beginners — often youth — to experiment with and become regular, long-term users.
Combating the tobacco industry
Despite having strong tobacco laws and regulations, the disproportionate use of menthol products remains an issue in New Jersey. While it’s estimated that more than 40% of tobacco sales in the state are menthol products, protecting health and lives far outweighs money and tax revenue.
To counter the effects of decades of misleading marketing, there are steps we can take across our communities to expose the manipulative tactics employed by the tobacco industry and empower affected communities with accurate information — a crucial step toward breaking the cycle of nicotine addiction.
Comprehensive public health campaigns are vital to counter the tactics of Big Tobacco and raise awareness. These campaigns should focus on raising awareness about the true health risks associated with menthol cigarettes. At Tobacco-Free for a Healthy New Jersey, the state’s largest collaborative effort to reduce the health consequences of tobacco use, we work with different community groups, schools and municipalities to raise awareness of the heightened dangers involved with tobacco products like menthol cigarettes, particularly among youth and Black residents.
Community empowerment means taking an active role in shaping a more equitable New Jersey. Residents should consider writing to local and state representatives and acting against Big Tobacco’s financial and marketing scheme to attract Black customers. Policies such as banning menthol cigarettes or limiting their availability can help protect Black communities in particular from the devastating effects of these products, reducing health disparities and promoting overall well-being.
By acknowledging the targeted marketing and deceptive tactics employed by Big Tobacco, we can strive for a future where the health and well-being of Black communities are safeguarded. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the harms caused by menthol cigarettes are exposed and action is taken to support affected communities on their path to recovery and improved health outcomes.