The Ridiculously Racist History of Menthol Cigarettes
Cigarette companies were blunt in their internal memos about pushing menthols on young, Black smokers and prospective smokers.
When the Biden Food and Drug Administration announced its plan to ban menthols, it cited the fact that “out of all Black smokers, nearly 85 percent smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 30 percent of White smokers who smoke menthols.” Other kinds of flavored cigarettes—which apparently once included cinnamon, toffee, vanilla and bourbon, among so many other disgusting tobacco flavor profiles—were banned back in 2009, but not menthols, which continued to be sold. In 2011 and 2013, an FDA advisory committee reported that menthols aren’t any more toxic than other cigarettes, but suggested the minty flavoring mitigates “the harshness of smoke and the irritation from nicotine,” an effect that “may increase the likelihood of nicotine addiction” and make it harder than other cigarettes to quit. “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace,” researchers concluded in a resulting paper, “would benefit the public health.”
The FDA has promised, cross-their-heart-and-hope-to die style, that the proposed ban on menthols won’t end up criminalizing Black folks for personal possession, to which the ACLU issued a highly relevant reminder-counterpoint. “Policies that amount to prohibition have serious racial justice implications,” the organization wrote, noting that “criminal penalties…will disproportionately impact” Black people, who police have killed for infractions that specifically include the selling of loose cigarettes. But the ban has been applauded by groups including The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and the NAACP, which issued a statement calling out cigarette manufacturers for “targeting African Americans…on a narrow quest for profit, and they have been killing us along the way.”
One thing that there’s no disagreement about is that the history of menthol cigarette marketing to Black folks is rich with racist stereotypes and the worst of intentions. Consider the case of Marie Evans, whose son was awarded $152 million in total damages in 2010 in his wrongful death lawsuit against Lorillard Tobacco Company, the manufacturer of Newports. In her 2002 video deposition, taken just weeks before she died of lung cancer, Marie recounted how Lorillard trucks in the late 1950s would roll into the Roxbury housing project where she grew up and hand out sample cigarette packs to Black adults—and young kids, too. As early as age 9, Marie was given Newports she would then trade for candy. At age 13, she started smoking, a habit she spent much of the rest of her life trying and failing to quit. Testifying at trial, Marie’s younger sister also recalled getting Newports from the same Lorillard van, which she said “looked like a Frosty truck.”
The supremely sinister idea of using ice-cream trucks to give away menthol sample packs and, more to the point, turn Black adults and their children into lifelong smokers emerged after the industry got wind of a 1953 survey commissioned by Philip Morris. The poll found that menthols weren’t wildly popular with any demographic—just 2 percent of white smokers and 5 percent of Black smokers identified Kool, made by Brown & Williamson, as their brand pick—but menthol manufacturers took that tiny edge and ran with it. Ads for menthol cigarettes had always sold the idea of breezy, minty, freshness—which implied menthols were healthier than other smokes—but now, that messaging was paired with anything manufacturers thought might appeal to Black folks.
“I like that clean taste and smooth feeling in my throat,” reads the word bubble from the mouth of Elston Howard, the first Black player for the New York Yankees, who was cast in an early 1960s print advertisement for Kools. In the years that followed, cigarette manufacturers poured money into Black magazines such as Ebony, which saw the number of cigarette ads in its pages increase threefold between 1963 and 1965. Four years after the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report that definitively identified cigarettes as carcinogens and linked smoking with myriad health problems, Phillip Morris generated an internal report showing their awareness that menthols were falsely regarded as healthier than other smokes—just as they’d portrayed them to be. “The majority view is that menthols are ‘less strong’ than regular cigarettes, and that a cigarette which is ‘less strong’ is better for a person’s health,” the memo stated. It went on to indicate that women were more likely to smoke menthols than men, but added “that does not make them effeminate or sissie [sic] cigarettes for black men” along with a parenthetical note that “many sociologists suggest that much of the Negro society is a matriarchal one.’’
In Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, author Robert N. Proctor quotes a 1970 Lorillard marketing memo that offers an incredibly racist answer to the document’s title question, “Why Menthols?”
“Negroes, as the story goes, are said to be possessed by an almost genetic body odor. Now whether or not this is real is irrelevant. More importantly, Negroes recognize the existence of this ‘myth.’ And they realize that ‘Whitey’ does too,” the document states. “Now what does this have to do with menthol cigarettes? Here’s the theory: Negroes smoke menthols to make their breath feel fresh. To mask this real/mythical odor.”
Cunningham & Walsh, a marketing firm hired by Kool manufacturers Brown & Williamson, floated alternate theories on why menthols would be taken up by Black buyers, and weirdly, aggressive targeted marketing and hyper-racist cultural assumptions somehow didn’t didn’t make the list. Instead, the reasonings included the “the self‐medication propensity” of African-Americans and “the image of the word ‘cool’ in the Blacks' vocabulary.” A Lorillard memo from 1968 hails the success of Newports while also warning that the company has to ensure the biggest consumers of menthols stay engaged.
“We must continually keep in mind that Newport is being heavily supported by blacks and the under 18 smokers,” it reads. “We are on somewhat thin ice should either of these two groups decide to shift their smoking habits.”
To that end, in 1978 Lorillard gave a nod to James Brown’s “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag” with the tagline, “Newport is a whole new bag of menthol smoking.” The song was 13 years old by that point, which says a lot about who was, and was not, in those marketing meetings.
To dig through this era of menthol cigarette ads is to observe the kitchen-sinking of every perceived trope of Blackness into a series of images aimed at making the cigarettes seem cool, sexy, and down for the cause. One Winston Menthols ad featured a Black couple, the woman gazing admiringly at the smoking man, who wears a red, black and green scarf. Another Newport advertisement casts a turtle-necked Black couple with perfect afros, a vaguely “African” necklace around the man’s neck, beneath the words “Bold Cold Newport. Light on it.” You want a Black “blues singer,” Newport dangling from his mouth, guitar on his lap, pictured between the messages “Cool ain’t cold. Newport is,” and “Half ain’t whole. Body ain’t soul”? You, unfortunately, got it! The backdrops in each of these scenes are greens and blues, colors meant to evoke the crispness of mentholated air.
They also rolled out the free-cigarette vans again, targeting Black neighborhoods and consumers just like they’d done in the past. In 1979, Lorillard’s Newport Pleasure Van program launched in New York before spreading across the country. A surviving 1991 television news clip of the van giving out cigarettes to residents of the Murphy Homes in Baltimore, Maryland, shows an employee getting out of the van to angrily demand the camaraperson cease shooting. R.J. Reynolds gave out Salem cigarettes across Chicago in its van program. Similarly, Kool cigarettes were distributed under a van program that Brown & Williamson’s in-house communications described as a way to “maintain media dominance among blacks” and which specifically targeted “housing projects, clubs, community organizations and events where Kool’s black young adult target congregate.”
Branded events were the logical, cynical next step, and they stretched across the 1970s to the 1990s. Parliament sponsored a World Beat Concert Series. The “Salem Summer Street Scenes” music festivals were backed by R.J. Reynolds. And bars in multiple locales played host to “Club Benson & Hedges” put on by Phillip Morris, which also put together a 17-piece jazz supergroup uncreatively dubbed the Philip Morris Superband. Brown & Williamson kicked off its annual multi-city Kool Jazz Festival in 1976, the bill featuring massive names such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, B.B. King, The Stylistics and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. (None of whom were jazz artists, but…back to our story.) By the early aughts, the company had invested in "Kool MIXX 2004," purportedly created to “celebrate the energy and creativity of the urban Hip-Hop culture.” Before the thing could take off, the attorneys general of 26 states threatened to file suit, charging that the event and attendant festivities — a DJ competition, various CD giveaways — targeted Black kids.
"Brown & Williamson's campaign is a shameless attempt to market Kool cigarettes to children and teenagers, particularly African American youth," then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said in a news alert.
Along with the AGs for Illinois and Maryland, Spitzer followed through on those lawsuit threats. According to the settlement agreement, R.J. Reynolds, which had purchased the Kool brand by the time all the dust settled, “agreed to pay $1.46 million to be used for youth smoking prevention purposes.”
While they were doing all this, cigarette companies continued to write astoundingly racist things in their internal reports. Researcher Stacey J. Anderson of the University of California San Francisco cited a mid-1980s report from RJR:
“To exploit the “potential opportunity sector” represented by black smokers, RJR produced a Black Opportunity Analysis in 1985. RJR noted “[t]here are...gaps within Blacks. Several studies have suggested that Blacks are becoming polarized into an ‘elite’ and an “underclass”...It is the “underclass” who are smokers.” Acknowledging the disadvantages of underclass status, RJR concluded that, although health may be a concern, “Blacks simply have more pressing concerns than smoking issues.” The implication is that this market, with its myriad socioeconomic pressures, should remain reliable consumers even if they are aware of tobacco's health risks.”
Perhaps realizing they might be helped by creating the illusion that they cared about Black customers at all — especially as smoking rates began to tumble — they also funded community programs. The Kool Achiever Awards were “designed to honor urban achievers who usually don't receive recognition for their accomplishments.” Philip Morris reportedly helped fund “one of the first major exhibitions of African American Artists” during the 1970s, Two Hundred Years of Black American Artists, among other Black arts exhibitions.
In 1993, New York Times columnist Robert Herbert wrote a piece criticizing civil rights organizations that took money from cigarette manufacturers, headlined Tobacco Hush Money for Black Leaders. Herbert wrote that “Philip Morris U.S.A. gave to the N.A.A.C.P., the Urban League, Associated Black Charities, Black Women in Publishing, the United Negro College Fund, the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Central Harlem Meals on Wheels Coalition, the National Association of Black Social Workers, the Harlem Y.M.C.A.” He closed by stating that in “accepting the money, and not speaking out against the awful dangers of smoking, those leaders are selling out their people.” Several, though not all, of the groups cited by Herbert have since become vocal opponents of cigarette manufacturers.
In more recent years, menthol makers have continued to focus on Black folks, young folks and, their sweet spot, young Black folks. Stanford researchers in 2011 found that in California neighborhoods, advertising for menthols increased in tandem with the number of Back high school students, while the price of simultaneously Newports decreased. Another study that same year found that “Newport cigarettes are less expensive in neighborhoods where higher proportions of African Americans live than in neighborhoods that have a lower proportion of African Americans,” while the prices of non-menthol smokes tended not to vary. Scholars at Washington University in St. Louis published a 2017 study finding that “as the proportion of black children in a census tract increased,” in the city, “the proportion of menthol marketing near candy also increased.” New year, same story.
The FDA, citing a previous study, has projected that ending menthol sales “would lead an additional 923,000 smokers to quit, including 230,000 African Americans in the first 13 to 17 months after a ban goes into effect.” The agency also points to another study, which produced findings suggesting a menthol ban would save 633,000 total lives, “including about 237,000 deaths averted for African Americans.” Whatever the numbers turn out to be, the ban is unlikely to happen within the next year. That’s time administration could effectively use, as many have pointed out, decriminalizing marijuana. If the larger Biden effort is about confronting systemic racism and its impact on generations of Black folks, that seems like a far more critical place to start.