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Williams: If Black lives matter, ban menthol cigarettes

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The Food and Drug Administration’s move Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes should have been a moment of unfiltered elation for Mignonne Guy. Instead, she was fuming over the gaslighting that followed.

“Yesterday, I was on fire,” said Guy, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, who specializes in medical racism and health inequities. She was angry over the misinformation and disinformation on social media and other platforms intended to spark African Americans to defend an indefensible product.

Nearly 85% of all non-Hispanic Black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes; 30% of non-Hispanic white smokers use menthols, according to the FDA.

“I want the public to know they’re being targeted again,” Guy told me Friday.

Guy

Guy

She anticipates a long legal fight ahead by the cigarette industry against this proposed ban. But if Black lives truly matter, we need to look askance at cigarettes, which disproportionately kill Black people. African American men have the highest rates of lung cancer in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The tobacco industry, Guy said, “went from forcing us to grow and pick the tobacco to really targeting us to use the tobacco.”

In an interview with VCU News, she called the proposed ban — which would also prohibit “characterizing” flavors in cigars — “historic and long-overdue action to protect all of our nation’s children, advance health equity and save lives, especially among Black Americans and other populations that have been targeted by the tobacco industry and suffered enormous harm from the predatory marketing of these products.”

“When I committed to studying tobacco as a graduate student, it was solely for this moment,” Guy said. “I learned very early on that the tobacco industry manipulated menthol products to increase their addictiveness, that they targeted Black, low income White, LGBTQ+, and young people to use these products — that, if used as intended, they would likely die from.”

“My goal,” she said, “was to contribute to the body of evidence that would lead to the ban of menthol cigarettes and put a stop to the industry preying on Black communities.”

The marketing of menthol cigarettes to Black consumers was made easier by redlining and housing segregation.

I grew up in a household where menthol cigarettes were smoked. Kool — a brand that would have a jazz festival named after it — appeared to be the brand of choice. The cooling effect of the menthol made the cigarettes easier to inhale, making for a more pleasant experience.

My parents managed to quit. But it was too late for my father, Wilbert Williams, who was diagnosed with lung cancer before his death three decades ago.

Stoking Guy’s ire Thursday was the alliance between cigarettes and some Black leaders, including Al Sharpton, who acknowledged in an article in The New York Times that his National Action Network has received financial support from the tobacco industry.

Sharpton, in a letter to Susan Rice, the Domestic Policy Council director, wrote that the menthol ban would have “unintended consequences” and “severely target and harm African American smokers, who overwhelmingly prefer menthol cigarettes.”

“A menthol ban would impose serious risks,” Sharpton wrote, “including increasing the illegal sale of smuggled, black market menthol cigarettes as well as the street sales of individual menthol cigarettes — ‘loosies’ and in turn place menthol smokers at a significant risk of entering the criminal justice system.”

Sharpton knows better.

Yes, Eric Garner, after being accused of selling “loosie” cigarettes, died from a chokehold by a New York City police officer in 2014. But to cynically turn this tragedy on its head is to ignore tens of thousands of African Americans who die of tobacco-related deaths each year. The targeting and harm of Black people by the cigarette industry is not an unintended consequence.

The FDA ban would apply only to manufacturers and retailers. As the agency states: “The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product.” And state and local law enforcement agencies do not independently enforce the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, the FDA stated.

Or as Guy told VCU News: “This fearmongering cannot hide the fact that it is the industry itself that preyed on and caused so much harm and death to Black Americans through the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes. This is not a question of criminalizing Black smokers; it is a question of saving Black lives.”

Numerous organizations have endorsed a menthol cigarette ban, including the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and a broad coalition of 77 public health, medical, education and community organizations.

No Black activist should dare defend a product that has taken so many Black lives. Disregard the smoke and mirrors.

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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