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Tobacco-Free Kids Welcomes CDC Statement Declaring Racism a Serious Public Health Threat

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
April 09, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids strongly welcomes and supports the statement issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky declaring that racism is a serious public health threat. The CDC is absolutely right: “To build a healthier America for all, we must confront the systems and policies that have resulted in the generational injustice that has given rise to racial and ethnic health inequities.”

These health inequities have been on stark display as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. But these inequities long predated the pandemic and will continue after it without bold action to address them once and for all. 

While racial and ethnic health inequities take many forms and have many causes, we know that one major cause is tobacco use and the tobacco industry’s decades-long, predatory marketing of menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products to Black Americans and other communities of color. The scientific evidence shows that menthol cigarettes are more addictive, easier for kids to start using and harder for smokers to quit.

The tobacco industry’s targeted marketing has had a devastating impact. In the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes compared to 85% today. Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives each year. Tobacco use is a major contributor to three of the leading causes of death among Black Americans – heart disease, cancer and stroke – and Black Americans die from these diseases at far higher rates than other Americans. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the Black community.

As our nation confronts racial and ethnic health disparities, we must eliminate menthol cigarettes and stop the tobacco industry’s racist targeting of Black Americans and other communities. The Biden Administration and the FDA have an immediate opportunity to do so because of a lawsuit filed last year by several public health and medical organizations to compel the FDA to act on its own scientific conclusions and the conclusions of its Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee that prohibiting menthol cigarettes would benefit public health in the United States, especially among Black Americans. The FDA has told the court (the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California) that it will issue a decision on menthol cigarettes by April 29, 2021.

As the CDC rightly noted, a comprehensive approach is needed to eliminate racial and ethnic health inequities. Eliminating menthol cigarettes is a critical step, and the FDA must seize this opportunity to do so.