Some Public Health Experts Concerned That Tobacco Regulation Bill Would Protect Types of Cigarettes Mostly Smoked by Blacks
Legislation that would allow FDA to regulate flavored tobacco products would exempt regulation of menthol cigarettes, which are widely used among blacks, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, public health experts have long suspected that "menthol might be a factor in high cancer rates in African-Americans." Nearly 75% of black smokers use menthol flavored cigarettes, compared with about one in four white smokers.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and 56 co-sponsors in the Senate, would give FDA the authority to remove addictive additives if they have proven to be harmful. Menthol flavored products were excluded from the bill because they are "crucial to the American cigarette industry" -- such products represent more than 25% of the $70 billion tobacco market, the Times reports. Without the exclusion, the legislation might not have a chance of passing, according to the Times. The bill would also regulate advertisements and promotions for tobacco products.
The protection given to menthol in the legislation has raised concern from some health experts, but a black advocacy group supports the bill.
Menthol has been "particularly controversial" because of concerns about its health effects on black, according to the Times. There have been divided reports on whether it is more addictive and harmful, the Times reports. In 1998, CDC reported that "menthol may increase the absorption of harmful smoking constituents," but four years later, the agency along with the National Cancer Institute, said studies on the effects of menthol are inconclusive. To date, of five large tobacco studies, one has concluded that men menthol smokers have higher cancer risks, but a "growing body of evidence suggests that menthol makes it harder to kick the smoking habit," according to the Times.
William Robinson, the executive director of the National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network, said that the exclusion was needed for passage of the bill but that the issue could be re-examined in the future. "The bottom line is we want the legislation," Robinson said, adding, "But we want to reserve the right to address this issue at some critical point because of the percentage of people of African descent who use mentholated products." Former Ohio Sen. Mike Dewine (R), who was part of the negotiations between Philip Morris and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids during the development of the bill, said, "My recollection is that we were able to eliminate the use of flavored cigarettes, strawberry, mocha, and all this stuff that is clearly targeted at young kids and to start them smoking tobacco," adding, "Where the compromise was made as I recall was on menthol."
Robert Robinson, former associate director in the office of smoking and health at CDC, said, "I think we can say definitively that menthol induces smoking in the African-American community and subsequently serves as a direct link to African-American death and disease." However, Michael Robinson -- a spokesperson for Lorillard, which makes Newport, the top-selling menthol product to blacks -- in a statement said, "Bottom line, the scientific publications to date have not concluded that menthol cigarettes are more hazardous or addictive than nonmenthol cigarettes" (Saul, New York Times, 5/13). NPR's "News & Notes" on Thursday included a discussion with Bill Robinson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, and John McWhorter, senior fellow in public policy at the Manhattan Institute, about the legislation (Chideya, "News & Notes," NPR, 5/15.)
Industry Marketing Examined
The Times on Tuesday also examined the history of marketing menthol cigarettes to blacks. According to the Times, it is unclear how blacks' "preference for menthol cigarettes developed in the first place," but "[s]ome scientists speculate that cultural and taste preferences provide a partial explanation." Marketing by the tobacco industry also "has played a role," the Times reports. According to the Times, once the industry noticed a "slight preference" for menthols, it "saw an opening to appeal to black smokers." Tobacco companies in the past have appealed to black smokers by hiring black spokespeople and developing promotional messages derived from popular black music, according to a paper by Phillip Gardiner, research administrator of a tobacco disease program at the University of California-Oakland. About three-fourths of outdoor cigarette marketing in black neighborhoods is for menthol-flavored brands, Brian Primack -- an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and author of a study published last year on the trend -- said. Tobacco industry officials maintain that they do not specifically target menthol marketing toward blacks and that they market to adults of all ethnicities. Michael Robinson of Lorillard said about 15% of the company's advertising budget goes toward campaigns directed at blacks. David Howard, a spokesperson for R. J. Reynolds, which markets the menthol brands Kool and Salem, noted that there are more white smokers than blacks. He added, "Would we like African-Americans to choose R. J. Reynolds brands? Yes, we would. Do we have marketing and communications that that audience can identify with? Yes, we do" (Saul , New York Times, 5/13).
"Congress is supposed to be acting in the public's interest, not the tobacco industry's," and one of the "alleged goals of the legislation is to reduce smoking's appeal to young people," a Los Angeles Times editorial states. It adds, "New smokers often find the taste of tobacco unpleasant or harsh, and tobacco companies have helped ease them into the habit with flavored cigarettes," including mentholated brands. Removing menthol could "lead to a significant drop in smoking," but it also could lead to a "big drop in profits," which is the reason why the legislation would not ban menthol flavoring, the editorial states. "For whatever reason, menthol makes cigarettes more palatable for blacks. And that is a real risk," the editorial adds. It concludes, "What we're asking for is honesty: The next time the anti-smoking lobby, Philip Morris and certain legislators say this legislation is needed to protect our children, they should have the decency to put the word 'our' in quotations" (Los Angeles Times, 5/14).