As with virtually every other African-American smoker I know, the only acceptable brands of cigarettes for me came in green-and-white packs. If you didn’t puff Salems — my cancer sticks of choice — you probably consumed Newports or Kools.
I always found it odd that the top three brands shared the same color scheme. It took a few years to realize that menthol was another commonality, which Dave Chappelle had fun with on his “I Know Black People” game-show sketch on his Comedy Central show. He asked contestants why blacks love menthol so much. “I don’t know,” said a social worker. “That is correct!” Chappelle said. “No one knows for sure.”
Whatever the reason for that preference — shared by an estimated 80 percent of black smokers, according to most reports — cigarette manufacturers and anti-tobacco groups are well aware that we favor menthol. But a proposed ban on mentholated cigarettes has caused a rift among forces that advocate on behalf of blacks’ interests. In one corner, favoring a ban, are the NAACP, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. In opposition are the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
The NAACP joined the debate last week, just three days after the other groups urged the Food and Drug Administration to reject calls for a ban on menthol flavored cigarettes. The issue appears to be a Catch-22: You either support blacks’ access to a dangerous-but-legal product (and arguably sustain its usage) or you support discrimination against the mostly black consumers of a dangerous-but-legal product (and arguably promote growth in the illicit cigarette trade).
I haven’t been a smoker for more than 20 years and have no intention of picking up the habit again. But if I did and discovered that my Salems were forbidden while those disgusting Marlboros were still on sale, I’d be livid. Why would the government ban the cigarettes that I prefer, while the estimated 78 percent of non-Latino, white smokers who prefer non-mentholated cigarettes are allowed to keep on puffing?