October 20, 2010 - The FDA's deliberations over a possible ban on menthol cigarettes have touched off a firestorm of debate within the African American community, and among public health groups divided about how to wean black consumers from their heavy dependence on cigarettes spiked with the minty flavoring.
On Monday, October 18th the debate among African American organizations burst into the open after the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, joined ranks with the anti-smoking group, the American Legacy Foundation, in calling for a ban on menthol as a cigarette flavoring.
The NAACP's appeal came just days after three other African American groups -- the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives -- urged the FDA to reject a ban on mentholated cigarettes. Those groups, testifying before a recent meeting of the FDA's scientific advisory panel on tobacco products, expressed concern that banning mentholated cigarettes could spur an illicit market for the outlawed products in minority communities where they are favored. Such a trade in banned menthol cigarettes, in turn, would likely drive a range of illegal activity and put new burdens on law enforcement agencies, they warned.
This type of reasoning is similar to the comments tobacco companies make when a government is considering raising the tobacco tax.
We are in total agreement with the comments of Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. McGruder fumed: "We are in a state of disbelief that some of our Black leadership organizations ... continue to act as front groups for the predatory tobacco industry." She points out that, "Menthol is not just a flavorant; it makes it easier for our youth to start smoking; it keeps people smoking, and it inhibits them from quitting. Menthol makes the poison go down easier."
Smoking related disease: African Americans continue to have a disproportionately high burden of disease, disability, and death. Of the three leading causes of death in African Americans — heart disease, cancer, and stroke — smoking and other tobacco use are major contributors. African American smokers have the highest rates of tobacco-related diseases and deaths.
Each year, approximately 45,000 African Americans die from a preventable smoking-related disease, which represents over 10 percent of the estimated yearly smoking related deaths in the United States. If current trends continue, an estimated 1.6 million African Americans who are now under the age of 18 years will become regular smokers. About 500,000 of those smokers will die of a smoking-related disease.
Smoking is responsible for 87% of lung cancers. African American men are at least 50% more likely to develop lung cancer than white men. In general, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. and African Americans are the most likely to develop cancer than any other racial or ethnic group.
It is estimated that nearly one-third of African American deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) are caused by smoking. African Americans have almost twice the risk of a first-time stroke.
African American teen smokers have a greater risk of developing long-term consequences from smoking than other ethnic groups, and are in danger of experiencing the negative effects of tobacco earlier in their lifetimes. (Moolchan, E, et al., “African-American teen smokers: issues to consider for cessation treatment,” Journal of the National Medical Association 92(12):558-62, December 2000.
After decades of marketing mentholated cigarettes in minority communities and blunting criticism by supporting minority causes, the tobacco companies have secured a huge following in minority communities, where rates of smoking remain stubbornly high. As many as 80% of African American smokers favor menthols, as do 30% of Latinos. By comparison, 22% of non-Latino whites smoke mentholated cigarettes. At least one large study, published in 2009, has found that those who smoke mentholated cigarettes find it harder to kick the habit than those who smoke unflavored tobacco.
Black Congressional Caucus: The banning of menthol cigarettes have even caused a rift in the Black Congressional Caucus which has strong financial ties to tobacco companies. Some members of the caucus argue that menthol cigarettes cause disproportionate harm to blacks and are pushing for a ban. The others are not so sure. Philip Morris alone has made annual contributions exceeding $250,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation which has influenced those opinions. (Congressional Black Caucus - Menthol Exemption..)
On Monday, the NAACP's Defense and Education Fund cited that disproportionate tobacco marketing to minorities as a reason for its support of a ban. Joined by the National Africa-American Tobacco Prevention Network and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, as well as by the Legacy Foundation, NAACP said the FDA "should help millions of Americans avoid tobacco-related death and disease" by banning menthol in cigarettes.
Reference: Much heated puffing among minority groups over menthol cigarette ban, Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times, 10/18/2010.
Some related news briefs:
Menthol May Be Nicotine's Partner In Addiction..;
Menthol cigarettes - if banned, how can this be accomplished??;
Menthol Cigarettes - smokers who started recently more likely to smoke menthols..;
Fitch Ratings - FDA menthol review - risk to tobacco industry..;
U.S. - Bill for FDA to regulate tobacco BAN MENTHOL..;
Menthol - More Than a Flavoring in Mentholated Cigarettes..;