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For more than 60 years and continuing today, the tobacco industry has targeted Black communities, especially children, with marketing for menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products like flavored cigars. The industry’s predatory marketing has had a devastating impact on Black health and lives. Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans, and tobacco-related health disparities in the Black community are largely the result of the tobacco industry’s intentional, targeted efforts to hook generations of Black Americans to deadly and addictive products. 

This report documents the pervasive and deliberate targeting of Black communities and children with advertising and promotions for menthol cigarettes and the resulting destructive impact menthol cigarettes have had on the health of Black Americans. It describes the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that menthol cigarettes are even more harmful to public health than other cigarettes – they lead to greater smoking initiation by youth and young adults, greater addiction and reduced success in quitting smoking, with a disproportionate impact on Black Americans. 

This report’s key findings include: 

  • For more than 60 years, the tobacco industry has deliberately targeted the Black community, especially youth, with marketing for menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products like flavored cigars. Since the 1950s, the tobacco industry has targeted Black Americans with pervasive marketing of menthol cigarettes through sponsorship of community and music events, free sampling, magazine advertising and retail promotions. The tobacco industry’s targeted marketing efforts have been horrifyingly successful. In the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, after decades of tobacco industry targeting, that number is 85%. Menthol cigarettes continue to be heavily advertised, widely available and priced cheaper in Black communities.

    The tobacco industry is using the same strategies it used to hook generations of Black Americans on menthol cigarettes to target Black youth with marketing for cheap, flavored cigars, some of which can be smoked like cigarettes and can cause many of the same devastating health consequences as cigarettes. In 2020, cigars were the most commonly used tobacco product among Black high school students.

  • The tobacco industry’s predatory marketing has had a devastating impact on the health of Black Americans. Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives every 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 conditions at far higher rates than other Americans. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the Black community.

    Now, Black Americans are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that smoking increases the risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Smoking is also a major cause of underlying conditions like heart disease and diabetes that disproportionately impact Black Americans and make them more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Menthol cigarettes are a major reason why Black Americans suffer unfairly and disproportionately from tobacco use. The devastating impact of tobacco use on Black Americans is no accident – it’s the result of the tobacco industry’s long history of targeting the Black community with menthol cigarettes. The cooling mint flavor of menthol numbs the throat and reduces the harshness of tobacco smoke, making menthol cigarettes more appealing and easier to use for young people who are starting to smoke. As a result, menthol cigarettes increase the number of youth and young adults who experiment with cigarettes and become regular smokers. Young people who start smoking with menthol cigarettes are more likely to become addicted and long-term daily smokers.

    Research also demonstrates that menthol cigarettes are more addictive and harder to quit, magnifying the public health impact on Black communities. Most Black smokers want to quit smoking, and while Black smokers are more likely than White smokers to try to quit, they are less likely to succeed. The difficulty that Black Americans experience in quitting smoking – and consequently their higher rates of tobacco-related disease and death – are due, in part, to their greater use of menthol cigarettes.

  • Strong action is needed to protect health and save lives. To protect the health of Black Americans and address health disparities, menthol cigarettes and all flavored tobacco products should be prohibited. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had the authority to take such action since 2009 when Congress granted the agency authority to regulate tobacco products. However, the FDA has failed to act despite repeatedly concluding that prohibiting menthol cigarettes would benefit public health in the United States.

    Comprehensive scientific reviews by the FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) in 2011 and the FDA itself in 2013 found that menthol cigarettes cause substantial harm to public health beyond that caused by other cigarettes. TPSAC concluded, “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.” In 2018, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced the agency’s intention to initiate rulemaking to ban menthol in cigarettes and other combustible tobacco products, stating that menthol cigarettes “represent one of the most common and pernicious routes by which kids initiate on combustible cigarettes” and “exacerbate troubling disparities in health related to race and socioeconomic status.”

Slideshow: How Big Tobacco Targets Black Americans


These findings demonstrate that the FDA has more than enough evidence to prohibit menthol cigarettes.

In June 2020, several public health organizations filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California asserting that the FDA’s failure to take action on menthol cigarettes constituted “unreasonable delay” in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Among other claims, the lawsuit asserts that the FDA has unreasonably delayed responding to a Citizen Petition, filed in April 2013 by various public health organizations, calling on the FDA to prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes. In a filing with the court on January 21, 2021, the FDA committed to issuing “a final citizen petition response” by April 29, 2021. The plaintiffs in the case are the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), Action on Smoking and Health, the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association. The lawsuit was filed after years of grassroots activity by AATCLC, the Center for Black Health & Equity (formerly the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network) and other organizations to raise awareness about the need to take action and eliminate menthol cigarettes.

Until the FDA acts, cities and states should continue their growing efforts to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. To date, two states – Massachusetts and California – and at least 120 localities have adopted prohibitions on flavored tobacco products that include menthol cigarettes (California’s law is on hold because the tobacco industry is seeking to overturn it through a referendum).  Congress can also act to prohibit menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, as the U.S. House of Representatives did in February 2020 when it passed the Protecting American Lungs and Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2020.

To help more smokers quit, it is also critical to expand the availability and promotion of smoking cessation services, especially in medically underserved communities. These efforts should also include a national public education campaign that provides information about where to get help quitting and is targeted to populations disproportionately impacted by tobacco use. 

These actions will improve health and save lives among Black Americans. They are needed now, more than ever, as we combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the shocking health disparities facing our nation. 

Last Updated Feb. 24, 2021.