Menthol cigarette use among African Americans

September 15, 2013

While FDA has done little to combat tobacco use, manufacturers are targeting young African Americans with saturation advertising, using menthol cigarettes as bait.

During my student pharmacist public health rotation, I researched tobacco use among African Americans in Solano County, California, along with the advertising tactics used by the tobacco industry to target them. As an African American, I was alarmed and disheartened by my findings.

Health risks

The advertisement of mentholated cigarettes in African American neighborhoods is incessant. The county reported that up to 23% of its population is made up of smokers, some of whom began smoking as early as the age of 12.

This issue is further complicated by the prevalence of other reported health risks: 21% of county residents are obese, 22% have hypertension, and 6.5% have diabetes. In Solano County, one in every five deaths is cigarette-related.

Marketing ploys

Although FDA has intervened to provide safety and protection on drug-related issues, little has been done regarding the use of cigarettes. While FDA did ban fruit- and candy-flavoring in cigarettes, tobacco companies have never diminished their efforts to ensnare as many tobacco users as possible.

One successful device to lure more young people into smoking cigarettes was the addition of menthol to cigarettes. And cigarette advertising is designed to target young adults and children in African American communities.

Even though clinical research studies have disproved the claims made by tobacco companies for the benefits of mentholated cigarettes, this industry continually promotes those claims in well-tailored media messages. As a result, a myth commonly believed among members of the American African population is that menthol cigarettes have medicinal benefits and are less harmful than non-mentholated cigarettes. 

The taste and sensation of menthol, which masks the taste of tobacco, are yet more devices the tobacco industry uses to prey on African American youth.

Focused advertising

Further studies document the fact that African American neighborhoods are targeted with more advertisements for the leading brands of menthol cigarettes than are other communities. Most alarming is that these advertisements are prominent near high schools. At convenience stores and gas stations in poorer neighborhoods, advertisements are strategically placed in areas where they are easily seen at eye level, such as on the widows and at cash registers.

Recently, a study was conducted comparing the ways cigarette advertisements are exposed to young people of different races. African American youths recognized the Newport menthol-flavored cigarettes more than other racial groups did. This result was attributed to uncontrolled exposure of advertisements of this product throughout their communities. It is not surprising there is increased smoking initiation among young African Americans. 

Local initiatives

To its credit, the Solano Board of Supervisors passed a resolution banning the sale of menthol cigarettes. In 2013, the Solano Tobacco Prevention and Education program and other local groups then signed a petition requesting a ban on menthol cigarettes and sent it to the FDA.

As pharmacists we are obligated to be concerned about the health issues of all the members of our community. One way to act on this concern is involvement in local tobacco prevention and education programs that promote a healthier style of living for all communities.

Another meaningful step would be to write to the FDA. The more communications and petitions the FDA receives regarding mentholated cigarettes, the greater the hope that the agency will take up this issue and eventually ban this health hazard. 

References

1. Unger JB, Allen B Jr, Leonard E, et al. Menthol and non-menthol cigarette use among Black smokers in Southern California. Nicotine Tob Res. 2010 Apr;12(4):398-407. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntq016. Epub 2010 Feb 18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20167636.

2. Vallejo Times Herald. Solano renews call for FDA to ban harmful menthol in cigarettes. 07/076/2013. http://www.timesheraldonline.com/ci_23609868/solano-renews-call-fda-ban-harmful-menthol-cigarettes.

3. Dauphinee AL, Doxey JR, Schleicher NC, et al. Racial differences in cigarette brand recognition and impact on youth smoking. BMC Public Health. 2013 Feb 25;13:170. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-170. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23442215

4. Henriksen L, Schleicher NC, Dauphinee AL, Fortmann SP. Targeted advertising, promotion, and price for menthol cigarettes in California high school neighborhoods. Nicotine Tob Res. 2012 Jan;14(1):116-21. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntr122. Epub 2011 Jun 24. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21705460.

Tolulope Alabiis a 2014 PharmD/MPH candidate at Touro University College of Pharmacy in Vallejo, Calif. Contact him at tolulope.alabi@tu.edu.