Big Tobacco has come under scrutiny for marketing their most dangerous product, menthol cigarettes, to African Americans. Their targeted advertising has become an issue of race vs profit.
The targeting of cigarettes, namely menthol cigarettes, to the African American community creates a dangerous problem for this ethnic group, as they are more likely to suffer the consequences of smoking than other ethnic groups. Tobacco companies have not been shy about tailoring their menthol brands’ advertisements to black Americans. Their packaging often features black individuals, and the lingo makes frequent use of phrasing common in hip hop and other “black” establishments. Laws are being proposed to prevent this from happening, but tobacco companies have powerful lobbyists, and they are prepared to use them against those who would aim to take away their profits.
The Appeal of Menthol Cigarettes
Black Americans are more likely to smoke menthol flavored cigarettes. In fact, The American Lung Association reports that among black smokers, over 80% smoke a menthol variety. This is especially dangerous, as these may be more addictive and thus harder to quit for those who smoke them. While the nicotine levels in menthols are the same as in other cigarettes, to many, they do taste better and are easier to smoke. This makes going back to the habit easier, and quitting all the more difficult. Some have accused tobacco companies of having a racist agenda because they are not only targeting certain groups more so than others, but they are targeting them with a more dangerous product.
While some could argue that all advertisers target ads to their particular market (this is marketing 101), others claim that the disproportionate attention toward African Americans with this dangerous cigarette sub-category shows a lack of ethics. Even so, tobacco companies have come out in defense of their strategies, claiming that preventing them from tailoring ads to set markets, or banning menthol cigarettes altogether, would be unethical and an infringement on their rights. This conflict has been dubbed “the menthol wars.”
By all accounts, the marketing strategy seems to have worked. African Americans were once more likely to smoke than any other ethnic group, and 18% of African Americans currently smoke (compared with 19% of Caucasians, 10% of Asian Americans, and 15% of Hispanic Americans) according to the latest CDC data compiled in 2012.
Health Risks for African American Smokers
The health complications related to cigarette smoking are well documented. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, allergies, SIDS, and other cancers and lung disorders. It’s the number one cause of preventable death in the US, with roughly 480,000 people dying from smoking related diseases annually in the United States alone. Another 41,000 die as a result from secondhand smoke.
One of the major issues for African American smokers, and one of the main reasons tobacco companies are accused of racism, is that not only are black Americans smoking a more addictive product, but they are also more likely to suffer the consequences. Black Americans are more likely to suffer from lung cancer, as a disproportionately large percentage of black smokers become afflicted, despite smoking in comparable amounts to other ethnic counterparts. It isn’t known why this is so, but the fact remains that black smokers are more likely to die from their habit than Caucasians and other ethnic groups.
Rebuking the Tobacco Industry
Those who want to reverse this trend should support their local lawmakers, many of whom are proposing legislation which would ban or restrict the targeting of tobacco product advertisements toward African Americans. Black Americans who smoke currently should quit. This will help prevent some of the health complications related to cigarette smoke. Quitting is possible through support, counseling, and sometimes stop-smoking aids, such as e-cigarettes.