Big Tobacco targeted Black Floridians. Menthol ban aims to reverse the damage.

·9 min read
Big Tobacco targeted Black Floridians. Menthol ban aims to reverse the damage.

ST. PETERSBURG — Heroin. Alcohol. Cigarettes.

The latter sounded the least harmful to 12-year-old Corben Arnold.

That morning at school, officers from a substance abuse prevention program gave a lecture. “No one grows up wanting to be addicted,” they said.

But that night, Arnold smoked a menthol cigarette from a pack of Pyramids in his friend’s garage.

In the 25 years that passed, Arnold smoked a pack of menthols a day, quitting occasionally. As a young man, the athlete put down the packs for baseball season. Then he picked them up again.

“I could turn it on and off,” said Arnold, a 42-year-old voiceover artist.

Five years ago, he decided to quit for good. A few days later, he had a voice over gig for a breathing machine. An unrelenting cough halted his lines and the irony set in.

“I literally cannot get through the script because I smoke,” he thought. Since then, he’s been smoke-free.

Black smokers bear the brunt of the damage inflicted by menthol cigarettes.

For decades, the tobacco industry has used the flavored cigarettes to target communities of color, low-income groups and LGBTQ people. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration announced plans in April to ban menthol cigarettes, to chip away at the persistent health disparities in those groups.

In 2009, the federal Tobacco Control Act banned flavors in cigarettes — but not menthol. While flavored cigars have seen a significant decline, menthol cigarettes continue to flourish.

Across the country, an estimated 34 million adults smoke cigarettes. And nearly 18.6 million of those smoke menthol products.

The racial disparity in who smokes is particularly stark among Pinellas County residents. More than 35 percent of Black residents smoke compared to less than 20 percent of white residents, according to Florida Department of Health data. In Hillsborough, nearly 23 percent of Black residents smoke compared to 18 percent of white residents. And among the 15 percent of Floridians who smoke, Black smokers are nearly 11 times more likely than white smokers to use menthol cigarettes, according to Tobacco Free Florida.

“What’s so dangerous about menthol is that it makes it easier to smoke,” said Jenny Vidrine, a researcher with the Moffitt Cancer Center who studies tobacco cessation intervention for underserved groups. The flavoring makes cigarette smoking more soothing and less harsh, she said, by masking unpleasant tobacco flavors.

Smokers can inhale menthol deeper and hold it in their lungs for longer, exposing users to more toxins. And because they’re highly addictive, menthol cigarettes are harder to quit.

“When you ask people that have been addicted to more hard core drugs like heroin or cocaine or even alcohol, what was harder to quit,” said Vidrine. “They say smoking.”

Big Tobacco

The prevalence of menthol cigarettes in predominantly Black neighborhoods is no accident.

“The reality is tobacco companies have targeted the Black community for decades,” said Laura Corbin, bureau chief for Tobacco Free Florida, the anti-smoking campaign funded by the state’s 1997 settlement with tobacco companies. By placing culturally tailored advertisements in Black neighborhoods, menthol cigarette smoking permeated communities of color across the country.

Big Tobacco has aimed ad campaigns at a wide array of communities including youth, Hispanics and rural communities with products intended to lure them in. But studies show the industry aggressively targets Black consumers.

A 2007 study showed that smoking-related ads were more highly concentrated in Black neighborhoods compared to white neighborhoods. There were nearly three times as many tobacco ads per resident in Black areas.

Tobacco companies also gave grants to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, supported civil rights institutions such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, and sponsored hip-hop and jazz festivals. In the 1980s, tobacco-industry sponsored vans rode through Houston’s predominantly Black neighborhoods disturbing free cigarette samples — a program that expanded to 50 cities.

“A total of 1.9M samples will be distributed to targeted smokers in 1983,” industry officials wrote in a Kool Market Development Program document. “Sample distribution will be targeted to: housing projects, clubs, community organizations and events where Kool’s Black young adult target congregate.”

When asked why industry leaders didn’t smoke, according to a 1992 report by The Times of London, an R.J. Reynolds executive replied: “We don’t smoke that s__t. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black and stupid.”

As a young boy growing up in Colorado, Arnold saw smoking advertisements in magazines and flash across billboards. Ads portraying wealthy Black couples and famous athletes ran in magazines like Ebony and Jet, saturating the community with tobacco-sponsored content.

Big Tobacco had found its target in Arnold.

“It was only Newports where I saw myself represented,” he said. “If I was going to smoke, I had to smoke either Kool or Newports because that’s what Black people smoke.”

To this day, bold tobacco advertisements still line the facade of convenience stores in predominantly Black communities.

“With Big Tobacco really being strategic and aggressive in targeting the Black community, it’s no surprise the health numbers look the way they do,” said Diadra Biles, tobacco program manager with the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance.

While Black Americans tend to start at an older age and smoke fewer cigarettes per day, compared to white Americans they’re still more likely to die from smoking-related diseases, such as stroke, heart disease, and cancer, according to Tobacco Free Florida.

Nationally, more than 39,000 Black Americans die each year from tobacco-related cancers — the highest rate of all racial and ethnic groups. Among Black men and women, lung cancer is the second most common cancer. And for Black Floridians, the number of tobacco-related cancer deaths has increased over the past decade, causing nearly 1,800 deaths among Black residents in 2020.

Nationally, smoking is the leading cause of cancer, said Vidrine, the Moffitt researcher. Though the prevalence of smoking has decreased in recent years, it remains the leading cause of preventable death. And where smoking doesn’t cause death, it can still leave users with lifelong conditions.

This month, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that may make it harder to sue tobacco companies. As part of that case, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Philip Morris USA asked the court to reconsider its 2006 findings that smoking is dangerous and that tobacco companies concealed those dangers.

If the companies succeed, that could hamper the thousands of lawsuits filed against them in Florida by smokers and surviving family members.

Fighting back

Briana Brooks is bringing the fight against Big Tobacco to St. Petersburg.

The 21-year-old pre-law student is organizing a block party at Gibbs High School next fall, aimed at deterring Black youth from picking up menthol products through education on smoking’s effects.

She’s here because of the Truth Initiative, the nation’s largest nonprofit anti-tobacco organization. She is a part of its national ambassador program, which each year trains young people ages 18 to 22 to run tobacco prevention campaigns and organize their peers to create tobacco-free environments. Brooks, a 2021 ambassador, is honing in on St. Petersburg’s predominantly Black neighborhoods.

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do” when she was accepted into the program, she said. She has a lot of family in St. Petersburg. Many smoke menthol products.

After convincing Gibbs High’s principal to host the block party, Brooks is trying to build more support by contacting food banks, local vendors, two of the region’s pro sports teams — the Bucs and Rays — and Mayor Rick Kriseman to garner city support. A date for the block party has not yet been set.

“I know that there can be a huge impact on not only the welfare, but on the health of the citizens of St. Petersburg,” said Brooks. She lived in the city for four years from 2001 to 2005 and now studies at Oakville University in Huntsville, Al.

By providing youth across the country with the tools to launch anti-smoking projects, the Truth Initiative says it’s trying to reach a vulnerable age group.

“Most people start smoking before the age of 26,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, the organization’s vice president of community and youth engagement. They try to intervene early through ambassador projects and grant funding.

They’ve given grants to eight Florida colleges, including two HBCUs — Florida A&M University and Florida Memorial University, both of which passed smoke-free policies.

The Truth Initiative is one of the organizations backing the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed ban.

“This work can and will save lives,” said Stewart-Reid. “This action has been long awaited.”

Weighing the risks

Other advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union fear a ban could create an underground market for menthol products in Black and brown communities. That could further exacerbate the disparate impact of policing and criminal penalties in those areas.

“Time and time again, we see encounters with police over minor offenses — for Daunte Wright (2021) it was expired tags, for George Floyd (2020) it was using a counterfeit bill, for Eric Garner (2014) it was selling loose cigarettes — result in a killing,” said ACLU senior legislative counsel, Aamra Ahmad, in a statement.

But some say the lives saved and illnesses reduced by such a ban would be worth any unintended consequences.

Vidrine said the real problem is that Big Tobacco spent decades selling the Black community “an incredibly toxic product that’s been manipulatively marketed.”

She added: “By and large, it’s a big win for public health.”

The NAACP and Black health organizations such as the National Medical Association, which represents Black physicians, are putting pressure on the Biden Administration to carry out the ban.

“The tobacco industry is on a narrow quest for profit, and they have been killing us along the way,” said a statement from the NAACP. “It’s about time we prioritize the health and well-being of African Americans.”

According to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, if 30 percent of menthol smokers quit and another 30 percent of those who would have started smoking menthol products do not, the results would be significant:

The number of smokers in the U.S. would drop by 10 percent, and the number of smokers in the Black community would fall 25 percent by 2050.

The study says more than 633,000 deaths could be averted.

The proposed ban could be a big win for public health, said Corbin of Tobacco Free Florida. “This has the potential to really be a great step towards equity.”

Since quitting smoking five years ago, Arnold, the St. Petersburg voiceover artist, said his health has significantly improved. His urge to smoke is gone.

The once-unrelenting tension throughout his body has released, he said. He can better control his breathing and complete mundane tasks without sweating profusely. He didn’t realize during his decades of smoking that a foggy hangover constantly loomed over him.

Now, he said, “I wake up clear.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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