Armchair Sociology: What's With Black People and Menthol Cigarettes?

When I was but a wee lad, my moms would send me to the corner store to cop some cigarettes for her. That I was 10 or 11 didn’t seem to matter to the cats behind the counter at the store; I would ask for her cigarettes — always Benson & Hedges Menthol Ultra Lights — they would toss them on the counter, I’d pay and then route. I can’t figure out if the easy access to cigarettes was a function of being in the hood where the store owners were just more lax*, or that the laws surrounding cigarette sales had gotten tighter in the intervening years.**

Anyway, I bring up all this ephemera because of a bill introduced by Henry Waxman that would again give the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products, with a particular emphasis on flavored cigarettes. Sounds straightforward enough, right? The problem is that the bill exempts mentholated cigarettes from FDA oversight. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus say that would have an averse affect on black communities, in which smokers overwhelmingly prefer mentholated cigarettes.

Menthol brands account for 28 percent of the $70 billion American cigarette market. While only 25 percent of white smokers choose menthol cigarettes, an estimated 75 percent of African-American smokers do.

The other issue is that many of members of the CBC receive a grip from tobacco companies, which makes many of them disinclined to push for changes in the legislation (Charlie Rangel, maybe unsurprisingly, is one of ’em).

Philip Morris over the years has been one of the biggest contributors to the caucus’s nonprofit Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. That financial support, in some years exceeding $250,000, and lesser amounts at times from other cigarette makers, has been the reason some critics perceived an alliance between big tobacco and African-American members of Congress, some of whom were willing to help fend off antitobacco efforts.

Among them, some critics have said, was Charles B. Rangel of New York. Although he supported some antitobacco initiatives, until the last few years Mr. Rangel staunchly opposed federal tobacco tax increases. He has said his stand was based on the disproportionate effect of excise taxes on the poor, not the thousands of dollars he received in tobacco industry political action committee donations.

Some caucus members have always seen tobacco money as a Faustian bargain and refused to take such donations, urging their colleagues to do likewise. One of them, John Lewis of Georgia, once told a reporter, “People are reluctant to criticize the giver, to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Black lawmakers who maintain strong tobacco industry ties include James E. Clyburn, who represents a tobacco-growing region of South Carolina and is majority whip of the House. Last year, Altria, the parent of Philip Morris, donated $50,000 to an endowment he established at South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

Buried in here is a question that has long racked my brain but for which I’ve never gotten an answer: why the hell do black folks smoke menthols?

When Chapelle famously asked on his “I Know Black People” game show sketch, he was greeted by a bunch of puzzled looks.

“I don’t know,” a social worker/contestant said.

“That is the correct answer,” he said. “No one knows.”

The Times suggested that the disparity in smoking preferences between blacks and whites was due to the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing of mentholated cigarettes to black people beginning in the 1950s (and anyone who read Ebony or Jet remembers that there were always Newport and Kool ads on their back covers). There’s also the argument that mentholated cigarettes are more appealing to younger smokers because it reminds them of candy. But that logic is sorta leaky: black smokers actually begin puffing later than other groups — groups who don’t prefer menthol.

Most cigarette smokers who first became smokers in 2005 were under age 18 (63.4 percent).

Smoking initiation rates have declined among Blacks, while delayed onset has been consistently indicated. Overall, Blacks have lower smoking initiation rates during adolescence than Whites and Hispanics for both males and females. Blacks begin regular smoking primarily after the age of 18. Hispanics have an earlier onset of cigarette smoking than Asians/Pacific Islanders and Blacks, while they have a higher but similar age of initiation compared with Whites.

Young people who come from low-income families with less education are more likely to smoke. So are those who have less success and involvement in school and fewer skills to resist the pervasive pressures to use tobacco. Tendencies to take risks and rebel are among the other risk factors for beginning smoking.

Okay, but aren’t black people more likely to come from low-income families with less education and do more poorly in school?

Anecdotally, I don’t know any black folks my age (I’m 27) who smoke, save an ex.*** I’m sure there are some who do who I’ve just not seen smoke. But in my circle, nada. My mom said she smoked menthols**** because they were ‘cool’, when she was a young adult.

Anybody got any theories?

*People who were short on change would routinely get passes from store owners. Sometimes the proprietors would let folks skate completely, which probably meant they’d had some other informal economic arrangements with those people.

** Those pull-knobby machines that used to sit in the lobbies of check-cashing places? Gone.

***”She seems like a Marlboro Lights kind of girl,” a friend said one night as we mulled this over at a restaurant. I called the ex while we were waiting for our waitress; indeed, she was Marlboro Lights devotee.

****She’s since quit, thank Jebus.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Big Word

    I smoke. I started smoking socially at 25. For the last couple years I average about half a pack a day. I started smoking clove cigarettes, those delicious Sampeorna joints. I’ve never liked the taste of menthol cigarettes. They taste like poison to me. However, just about every black person I know smokes menthols. I think it’s because people do prefer the “minty” taste of menthol.

  • BW: Yeah, but it’s not like black people have a genetic predisposition toward mintiness, right? so what gives? is it just about aggressive marketing?

    and LOL @ ‘they taste like poison…’ um, it is poison.

  • P.K.

    Funny…I also thought first of the “fresh”, “minty” taste. But, I would hazard a guess that we are looking in the wrong direction.
    Shouldn’t the question be why are we as a people being encouraged to drink Hennessy and Courvoisie (sorry about the spelling)smoking and drinking ourselves to an early grave, while in our communities there is a liquor store on almost every corner? Seems to me that menthol cigarettes should be treated exactly like non-menthol cigarettes in Mr. Waxman’s bill. Billboards for these poisons should come down in our black communities and Some, or most of the liquor stores should be closed in favor of supermarkets with fresh, healthy food.

  • Good Blog

  • LH

    I think this may have something to do with the way mentholated cigarettes were/are marketed. The message seems to be that mentholated cigarettes are “fancier” than non-mentholated cigarettes. This is something that would appeal to people who don’t know what fancy really is (a cigarette can’t be fancy). Add that to old fashioned target marketing, and here we are.

  • I’ll bet the tobacco companies know the reason for the menthol preference. The info may be publicly available too, just buried in the thousands of docs released as part of the tobacco litigation. Not a bad research project for a grad student

  • jden723

    I have often thought about this. All of my uncles and extended family members who smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes. (Newports, Kools, etc.)

  • When I was but a wee lad, my moms would send me to the corner store to cop some cigarettes for her. That I was 10 or 11 didn’t seem to matter to the cats behind at the store; I would ask for her cigarettes — always Benson & Hedges Menthol Ultra Lights

    OMG, yes! I used to do the same thing! Only being white, my mom smoked B&H Ultra Lights sans menthol.

    I’m so glad you posted that–I’ve been thinking that I must have been crazy and imagining going to the liquor store for my mom to buy cigs for her when I was like 10, but now I have evidence that it was, indeed, possible. Crazy shit, man.

  • BPD: When I was thinking about this, I actually kind of thought I may have been misremembering how easy it was to buy cigarettes when I was a kid. But i can’t remember ever getting stopped or even delayed by a store clerk.

    Maybe it’s still that easy, and I just don’t know because I don’t buy cigarettes and I’m not a kid.

  • I asked my dad, and he said, yeah, all the folks he knows who smoke love them some menthol, but even he couldn’t tell me why. I’m inclined to agree with Brian Schmidt – the answer is probably buried in a public place.

    And LH might be onto something with the ‘fancy’ theory. For example, most blacks live in or near urban centers, and smoking a mentholated cigarette could have seemed more sophisticated and appealing than the other popular cigarette narrative – the Marlboro Man, living out among the dogies and whatnot.

  • Shani: What about poorer whites though? Why wouldn’t the ‘fancy’ pitch work for them?

  • Maybe blacks just couldn’t relate to the cowboy thing? Or to the carefree white woman with flowing hair who’s “come a long way, baby.”

    I’m suggesting it’s a cultural issue.

  • aisha

    I studied this during my internship at the Tobacco prevention and control branch of North Carolina. The biggest problem with menthol is that it allows you to inhale deeper. Think about putting vapo rub on your lungs and then inhaling. It’s part of the reason that Blacks have less exposure on average but are more likely to develop severe forms of cancer and other lung diseases. It was clear that advertising pushes menthols. However it wasnt clear which came first the preference for menthol or the advertising.

  • Big Word

    Yeah, I can dig the fancy theory. Think about how the Alize, Hennessy and Crown Royal bottles are designed. I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and there’s a section in that book that discussing how much marketing is geared towards designing bottles and lables so that you have a certain reaction to it at a glance. Besides, most poor people (myslef included) don’t mind spending a lot of money on quality, even if it is just a perceieved notion.

  • tabitha

    My great-grandmother smoked Newport 100’s. When I was a kid I asked her why. She told me she grew up on a tobacco farm in GA and Newports were the closest she could get to the same taste and feeling of the tobacco on that farm where she originally started smoking as a teen. She was ultimately the reason every smoker on my mothers side of the fam began. It generally started b/c we went and get her cigs. The owners let us buy them b/c they all knew my family and who the cigarettes were for. Eventually you got curious. My grandmother didn’t buy lighters or matches. She sent one of the her many great grandchildren into the kitchen to light her cigarette on the stove. That’s how it began. You wanted to try it. A puff here, a puff there. That’s how ALL of my cousins got their first taste. It’s how all of my mothers siblings and first cousins got started. Most of them didn’t start then. They started after 18 because in our family that makes you an adult. No one says anything if you decide to smoke then. They inevitably go back to that first taste of Newports. They don’t explore. They go with what they know. I think black ppl smoke what they smoke out of tradition… it’s what black ppl smoke. My little sister began smoking in her senior year of college. She smokes Newports. My great-grandmother died 10 years ago from emphyzema but that part of her lives on. All my first cousins who smoke, began in their 20’s and they ALL smoke Newports.

  • GD, I think it’s probably impossible now; when we were kids, the 18-and-up carding-for-cigs thing wasn’t done.

    I have no theory about the menthols, except that I’ll add that it seems to me that gay men are also more likely to smoke them than the general population. Maybe they’re like the cigarette version of disco or something.

  • JPool

    My Grandmother smoked Salems (ie, menthols smoked by/marketed towards white people). I never even thought of trying these when I smoked. Similarly, my Dad smoked Pall Malls when I was a kid (though I don’t have memories of this) and I always hated those wen I bummed them from friends. When I was smoking the brands I chose — Spirits, Davidoffs, Dunhills — I thought of as just the ones whose taste I enjoyed. Looking back though, I sure my choices were defined as much as anything by what seemed cool in my particular social circle. This is what I think of as a community of taste. In my case it was defined by my particualr generational/subculutral cohort, but it can just as easily be defined by other identity factors.

    I think the Black people and menthols thing also best thought of as a community of taste, and that marketing followed what companies perceived to be their audience, rather than vice versa. I’m pretty sure that if you could do time-travelling statistical analysis, you’d find that Black folk came to disproportionately embrace menthols a decade or two before the manufacturers decided to court them as a market.

  • longbench

    “I think the Black people and menthols thing also best thought of as a community of taste, and that marketing followed what companies perceived to be their audience, rather than vice versa. I’m pretty sure that if you could do time-travelling statistical analysis, you’d find that Black folk came to disproportionately embrace menthols a decade or two before the manufacturers decided to court them as a market.”

    Hmmm. Good theory, but I thimk, based on my memory of seeing the ads for menthol cigarettes in Ebony many moons ago, that the “community of taste” only emerged as such after the advertising blitzes solidly linked methol cigarretes with images of smiling black women’s lips looking on lovingly (greedily?) while sexy black men in slinky pants took a drag. Its not that black people were not smoking them before; i think black urban identity and smoking methols became part of one story, so that it is now impossible to imagine when it was not so. Now that’s a successful ad campaign. Fuck Rangel and all o dem CBC motherass for not standing up for black people’s health! God I hate politicians! I have a sick feeling I’m going to feel this way about Barack very soon…

  • Loneoak

    It strikes me as one of those historical/cultural accidents that just sort of gets calcified and some corporate assholes take advantage of. You could think about it forever and do 3 PhD’s on the topic and still be at that same starting point.

    My first smoke was a clove cigarette, the kind with the sugar and spices on the filter. Only I didn’t stick with tobacco …

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  • Because Big tobacco targeted concentrated black audiences with cheap advertising (billboards). Tobacco is sold to all audiences based on some faux identity, e.g., The Malboro Man. Some white tobacco execs decided that menthol bore some association with blacks way back when. In the ’40s or ’50s, perhaps fresh from defeat pushing mentholated death on whites, or perhaps inspired by the affinity that a few famous blacks had for menthol, they pulled the trigger on a new campaign. I don’t know any real history on this but have the vaguest recollection of a jazz musician associated with menthol. However, I do recall stats that put the issue in sharp relief, in the form of odds of tobacco use in the adult population:

    College graduates: 1 in 8
    High school graduates: 1 in 3
    Urban blacks: 1 in 2

    The article focused on Baltimore. It ran roughly two years ago.

  • C.

    Well, there’s also the fact that once you pick a side there’s no crossing, cigarette-wise, that is. I mean, yada yada yada, everybody knows by now that the tobacco companies calibrate the nicotine in each brand in order to tie you to one, but even aside from that — smokers who don’t smoke menthols can’t stand menthols, and vice versa. Maybe when you’re a teenager, sneaking one here and there, you might go back and forth, but once you’re buying them for yourself you’ve declared. It’s pretty routine for someone bumming a cigarette to turn down a menthol and vice-versa. So I think you might have a situation where once the bias is established within a group, it’s strongly self-reinforcing — the first cig you try is a menthol, the ones you bum of your friends are menthol, and so the first ones you buy for yourself are menthol, and once you’re on side there’s no crossing over.

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  • jprint24

    i think it’s that not many ad campaigns were geared toward blacks (esp at that time) and the ads worked really well

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  • Kuppy Krabb

    Kuppy says “They just do”.

  • Independent

    Dey be likin’ dat sheet, man. Dat memfol be makin’ dere moufs feel cool, so darefo dey be cool homies.