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The Black Menthol Debate: Power, Money, Cancer and Control

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A year ago, an African-American lobbyist lobbied Black legislators to sign a letter to send to the Biden Administration to ask for support to NOT ban menthol after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban in 2022. “Aren’t cigarettes cancerous, and if we make them more flavorful, more people will smoke cigarettes,” I asked. “Yeah, but it disproportionately impacts people of color. The ban is targeting Blacks who smoke cigarettes,” replied the lobbyist. “So, the ban means that potentially less Black people will want cigarettes, thus reducing their cancer-risk,” I responded.

You can see where I am going with this. I worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) within the Office of Global Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prevention saves lives, costs less than treatment and improves the quality of life for those who choose healthy lifestyles. Needless to say, I was the Black legislator who refused to sign the letter that advocated for keeping menthol in cigarettes.

According to Statista, nearly 40 percent of all cigarette sales in the United States are menthol. Statista also reports that cigarette revenues are an $86 billion industry in the U.S.

Likeminded pro-health advocates will march on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on January 18, 2024 to plan a “menthol funeral” to memorialize the 45,000 Black Americans who die from tobacco-related illness each year. These advocates report that tens-of-thousands of Black lives could be saved by banning menthol from cigarettes.

A recent Hill article reports, “The tobacco industry has long been accused of targeting the Black community, especially with menthol products, while simultaneously courting and funding Black-led organizations, politicians and civil rights leaders in an effort to neutralize criticism.” Furthermore, Mignonne Guy, an associate professor and former chair of the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University states, “The fact that 85 percent of Black people who smoke cigarettes smoke menthol cigarettes, it’s not a mistake. It’s not happenstance. It’s not culture. It’s not a preference for the taste. It is a concerted marketing effort by an industry that infiltrated these communities to peddle these drugs, and they’ve done so successfully.”

So here we are, stepping into 2024 with plans to achieve our New Year resolutions of better health, kindness, joy, prosperity and love. Except, let’s ask ourselves if our resolutions have exceptions – take banning menthol cigarettes for an example. Do we cater to a few people who will ultimately illegally sell menthol cigarettes in fear of a police officer exhorting violence during an arrest; or do we consider saving 45,000 people from dying of cancer?

I believe that all lives are important. How would you decide to vote if you were a legislator? Would you be on the side of Reverend Al Sharpton, Attorney Ben Crump, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), and the $86 billion tobacco industry or the pro-health and prevention advocates?

Before you answer, the Hill article reports that there is an evidential relationship between RJ Reynolds, the manufacturer of Newport menthol cigarettes, and Rev. Al Sharpton. Newport buys tables at events for Rev. Sharpton for up to $15,000 per table. Many people believe this fact should be disclosed when Rev. Sharpton’s organization promotes to keep menthol in cigarettes, especially if he directly benefits from the $86 billion industry. Likewise, Virginia Slims cigarettes sponsor NOBLE events. Now, what do you think?

Currently, only two states ban menthol cigarettes – Massachusetts and California. So far, there are zero arrests for smoking menthol cigarettes likely because the ban applies to cigarette manufacturers, distributors or retail sellers, not individuals who possess or use menthol cigarettes.

The menthol debate is important and can save 45,000 lives each year. The disparities of Black Americans are real, evident and data-driven. A few examples of such disparities include cancer-related deaths from menthol cigarette use, maternal mortality, chronic illness, homicides, literacy, single-parent homes, home ownership, college graduation rates and incarceration.

Black Americans are hurting in many ways and suffer from political propaganda and follow the leader policy initiatives without even knowing who is the leader. This year, people will be demanding the answer to the question, “What have you done for me lately?”

I agree with President Derrick Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who is quoted in the Hill article saying that the Black community is concerned about “the price of gas, bread, the future of their children, the safety of their communities.” Inflation, educational freedom and public safety are paramount to Georgia citizens and Americans.

Note: This is an opinion article as designated by the the category placement on this website. It is not news coverage. If this disclaimer is funny to you, it isn’t aimed at you — but some of your friends and neighbors honestly have trouble telling the difference.


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