Black Health Advocates Want US Government to Take on Menthols As Hard As It’s Taken on Other Flavored Tobacco

In this photo illustration, packs of menthol cigarettes sit on a table
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty)

African American health advocates are taking aim at the Trump administration’s decision to go after flavored e-cigarettes—except for menthol, a flavor long popular among, and known to be more addictive for, African Americans.

The Trump administration, concerned by a rise in underage use of e-cigarettes, recently touted a ban on all flavored vaping products, but pulled back on banning menthol flavors.

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Administration officials said adult smokers should have a choice in their use of a still-legal product, and allowed for plain tobacco and menthol flavors.

But some health advocates say such thinking perpetuates racist marketing ploys by tobacco companies that have plagued African American communities for decades and contributed to high rates of tobacco-related illnesses and deaths in the black community, as the Washington Post reports.

“When you look at the staggering numbers of African Americans smoking menthol, it’s so hurtful that no one is taking a stand,” LaTrisha Vetaw, health policy and advocacy manager at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis, told the Post.

LaTroya Hester, a spokeswoman for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network in Durham, N.C., expressed the following frustration to the news site:

When a health threat arises for “young white people, then action is taken really quickly. [...] When it’s African Americans, it just seems that people are slow to move.” 

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As the Post reports, research shows there’s a marked preference for menthol cigarettes among African Americans:

While just over half of all teen smokers use menthol cigarettes, 70 percent of young African American smokers do. Among adults, the racial gap is even wider: More than three-quarters of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes — three times the proportion of white smokers. 

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That said, there is pushback on the idea of banning menthol cigarettes because of the racial element. Critics say that African American adults are just that, adults, and should be treated as such. They say banning menthol-flavored e-cigarettes to “protect” blacks is patronizing.

In addition, some critics, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, argue that banning menthol flavored e-cigarettes could also increase black people’s encounters with police due to such a ban opening a market for underground sales of menthols.

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In an interview he gave about a proposed New York City ban on menthols, Sharpton said, per the Post:

“Can you tell me that police are not going to give tickets and make arrests?” Without such an assurance, he said, “I’ve got a concern.”

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But some question Sharpton’s stance, saying that the National Action Network leader has financial ties to tobacco companies. To those criticisms, Sharpton said that his opinions reflected his personal convictions, the Post reports.

In any case, while the Trump administration says it “continues to review” all manner of flavored e-cigarette products, including menthol, it’s unlikely any further action will be taken anytime soon.

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As the Post explains:

getting a menthol cigarette ban through a Republican-controlled Senate remains a steep challenge, health advocates say.

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The industry itself remains adamantly opposed to a ban, saying there’s no reason to regulate menthol cigarettes differently than other cigarettes.

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