Thursday, April 18, 2024

NC trend: Menthol cigarettes may soon burn out

A popular Tar Heel-made product eyes a controversial demise. 

The latest blow to strike North Carolina’s tobacco industry may be a forthcoming Food and Drug Administration ban on the use of the menthol additive for cigarettes. The change, which was pending at press time, promises to make a big mark because menthol cigarettes make up about 37% of U.S. sales. Moreover, the best-selling menthol brand, Newport, is a primary brand of Winston-Salem-based Reynolds American, which is owned by British American Tobacco.

Reynolds American sells about 30 billion Newport cigarettes annually, according to the Los Angeles Times. At a 7-Eleven store in Matthews, a pack of Newports listed for $9.15 cents in early September. 

Found naturally in peppermint, spearmint and other mint plants, menthol is a chemical compound that provides a sweet aroma and taste. The cigarettes were first marketed in the 1920s as a “health cigarette” for smokers experiencing throat irritation, says Keith Wailoo, a Princeton University professor who published a book last year, “Pushing Cool,” on the history of the product.

Menthols steadily gained popularity over the years, particularly after the industry shifted to marketing the cigarettes to Black communities in the 1960s through billboard advertising and event promotions. Cigarette manufacturer Brown and Williamson “began aggressively advertising Kool cigarettes in Black communities, and because of the popularity, growth and success of their strategy, other companies joined in,” Wailoo says in an interview on Princeton’s website. Kool was then the dominant menthol brand. “What you begin to see in the ‘60s and the 1970s is a kind of intensive competition to garner and to control their Black franchise.”

In the 1980s, New York-based Lorillard Tobacco started advertising its Newport brand — made at the company’s Greensboro factory — mainly in Black neighborhoods in bigger U.S. cities. It quickly overtook Kool in popularity and by 2005, about half of cigarette sales to Black smokers in the U.S. were Newports, according to industry statistics. The brand later rose to No. 2 among all cigarettes, trailing Altria’s Marlboro. R.J. Reynolds paid $27 billion to buy Lorillard in 2015, before the historic N.C. company was acquired by British-American.

When the FDA was granted regulatory oversight of tobacco products in 2009, the agency banned flavored cigarettes, which critics say enticed younger people to start smoking. But menthol was exempted from the ban, partly because some Black elected officials said Black smokers preferred the product, Wailoo notes. Since then, Massachusetts voters approved a ban on menthol sales, while a vote on a ban is planned in California in November. 

After President Joe Biden was elected in 2020, his administration decided to attack the issue as part of continued efforts to reduce smoking. In April, the FDA issued proposed rules prohibiting menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The agency accepted public comments for about three months, prompting 250,000 submissions with about 175,000 favoring the menthol ban, according to the Convenience Store News trade publication. A decision is pending.

A Reynolds American spokesperson says the ban isn’t necessary because the company is creating lower-risk products for smokers. It has hired several Black lobbyists and consultants to help oppose the menthol ban, including MSNBC host the Rev. Al Sharpton. They argue that a ban will create a huge underground market for bootleg menthols that could lead to more criminal activity.  

But the NAACP and other advocacy groups have praised the ban, noting that tobacco-related cancers claim 40,000 Black lives annually with a death rate that is 17% higher than whites, according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Center For Black Health and Equity estimates a ban would benefit the majority of smokers who have been trying to quit and help boost the work of smoking cessation groups. 

Princeton’s Wailoo says menthols are more hazardous because they are “more addictive, and the more addictive the tobacco product, the more likely it is that you’re going to smoke over a longer time, developing the characteristic health problems associated with long-term tobacco consumption — lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease.”

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