The FDA’s Menthol Ban and the “Moral Dilemma” of Marketing to Black Customers

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Community members continued their protests. Editorials in local and national newspapers and magazines condemned the brand. And in 1990, the tobacco company withdrew the product.

Column by Robert Newberry Houston Post, page A-21, January 24, 1990. (Courtesy of Alan Blum “Of Mice and Menthol: The Targeting of African Americans by the Tobacco Industry” (2018) https://csts .ua.edu/minorities/)

“I was pleased with the reaction there,” Sullivan said. “Because I was very determined to do everything I could as secretary to improve the health of all Americans, but especially those who have been marginalized, whose health is not as good as that of the white community.”

Banning menthol – winning the battle, but not the war?

Dr. Jamie Garfield, a pulmonologist and associate professor of thoracic medicine at Temple University School of Medicine, says the proposed ban on menthol is “the most significant action the FDA has taken” in its 13 years of history of tobacco product regulation.

“There’s a big problem with menthol use in the United States,” Garfield said. “And there have been a lot of state restrictions on the sale of menthol products, but there have been no federal restrictions on manufacturing and sales.”

But some experts say the biggest question about menthol cigarettes remains unanswered: why did tobacco brands target African-American communities so aggressively in the first place?

Dr. Alan Blum, family physician and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society at the University of Alabama, said that even after RJ Reynolds pulled Uptown cigarettes from the market, the company quietly introduced a brand called Salem Black Label just a few months later, in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, to the same black customers.

Blum is a historian and curator of the center’s Of Mice and Menthol exhibit, which examined the history of tobacco companies targeting minority communities.

While this history is well documented, determining why menthol cigarettes became the choice for African Americans remains a mystery, Blum said.

“I don’t think anyone has ever figured out exactly how menthol became the type of cigarette of choice for African Americans,” he said. “For some reason, Ebony magazine and Jet magazine, which were the two main publications aimed at African Americans, never ran a single ad for menthol-free cigarettes.”

An old newspaper article with the title
Press article by Michael Quinn, Time, vol. 135, no. 5, page 60, January 29, 1990. (Courtesy of Alan Blum “Of Mice and Menthol: The Targeting of African Americans by the Tobacco Industry” (2018) https://csts.ua.edu/minorities/ )
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