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Black leaders and public health groups call for ending menthol cigarette sales

Many prominent Black civil rights leaders, faith leaders, public officials, and public health experts – including leaders of the NAACP, members of Congress, mayors of major cities, and former U.S. surgeons general – are calling for the White House to stop delaying and end menthol cigarette sales.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed rules to end menthol cigarette and flavored cigar sales last spring, which were expected to be finalized by the White House in August 2023. However, the administration has repeatedly delayed finalizing the rules in the face of pressure from the tobacco industry. As part of its intense lobbying efforts, the tobacco industry has attempted to spread fear that menthol bans unfairly target Black Americans and would lead to further criminalization of the community, even though the FDA has made it clear that enforcement of its rules would be focused on manufacturers and retailers, not individual consumers. A recent poll commissioned by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that 62% of Black Americans support the menthol cigarette rule.

Tobacco companies have strategically and aggressively targeted the Black community with menthol cigarettes for decades, including giving away free samples and placing more advertising in predominantly Black neighborhoods, appropriating culture in marketing, and sponsoring events such as jazz and hip-hop festivals. As of 2020, 81% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, and yet they have been repeatedly exempted from legislation ending sales of flavored tobacco products.

Here are some ways Black public officials, figures, and organizations have been leading the call to end the industry’s exploitative practices and products that threaten the health of their communities.

Leaders hold a Menthol Funeral in front of the White House

Public health and civil rights groups gathered in January for a “Menthol Funeral” organized by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) to protest the Administration’s delay. Speakers at the demonstration included Rev. Horace Sheffield, a pastor with Detroit’s New Destiny Christian Fellowship whose mother smoked menthols and died from a heart attack when the reverend was young, who refused to accept tobacco industry funds when R.J. Reynolds asked him to advocate on their behalf. “If we are to be truly free in this great land of opportunity,” said Rev. Sheffield, “we must do away with corporate greed which keeps us in chains and allows us to purchase our death a package at a time and which kills us a puff at a time.” Other speakers included Nia Naylor, student body president of Howard University and a truth community leader, Wisdom Cole, national director of the youth and college division at the NAACP, Natasha Phelps, director of equity-centered policies at the Center for Black Health and Equity, and more.

Mayors speak out for their constituents

Several Black current and former mayors voiced their support in a video from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, including Mayor Tishaura O. Jones of St. Louis, who spoke about how her mother smoked menthol cigarettes from a young age and died at age 54. Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles called false claims, fueled by the tobacco industry, that eliminating menthol cigarettes will put Black Americans at greater risk from law enforcement “laughable and very insulting.” In June 2023, the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution in support of ending all flavored tobacco product sales.

Congressional Black Caucus members issue joint letter

In a joint letter, 32 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) called for the Administration to finalize the FDA’s proposed rule to end menthol cigarette sales, which they called “a significant step toward preventing a new generation from becoming tobacco users and saving lives.” It continued: “For too long, tobacco companies have been enabled to promote menthol cigarettes to the Black community, preying particularly on Black youth.”

Leaders represent their civil rights and public health groups at a press conference

In response to the Administration’s delay, civil rights, public health, and faith leaders gathered for a press conference to express disappointment and urge action. NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson reiterated the NAACP’s call for an end to menthol cigarette sales: “It is our community’s public health needs that are being played with, toyed with, and used as a political pawn.” Other speakers included Shavon Arline-Bradley, president and CEO at the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair at The Poor People’s Campaign, Carol McGruder, Founder and Co-Chair, African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, and more.

Former U.S. Surgeons General author joint op-ed

Black former U.S. Surgeons General Regina Benjamin and Jerome Adams called in February for the Biden Administration to finalize the FDA’s proposed rules to eliminate sales of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. Dr. Benjamin had served as U.S. Surgeon General during the Obama Administration, and Dr. Adams had served in the role during the Trump Administration. Together they wrote: “As surgeons general during both Republican and Democratic administrations, we have consistently pointed out the enormous toll of tobacco use, highlighted the stark health disparities that continue to ravage Black and minority communities, and emphasized evidence-based measures to reduce smoking rates and save lives.”