Debate swirls around menthol smokers

    The Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes. That decision could cost tobacco makers millions and affect millions of menthol smokers.

    The minty smokes are heavily marketed in urban areas and particularly popular among African Americans. Opponents say a ban robs black smokers of a perfectly legal preference. Supporters say the prohibition could boost public health.

    WHYY/Newsworks spoke with two menthol smokers from Philadelphia:

    You can almost read a neighborhood by the cigarette packs littering the curb. Outside the Melrose Diner on Snyder Avenue, it’s mostly Parliaments and Marlboros. At the Harvest Supermarket in Point Breeze, the cigarette trash and store signs all say Newport.

    Point Breeze resident Elijah Griffin buys about a pack a day.

    “They raise the price up to $6.50, $7 a pack. It’s almost like a survey to find whether we will still buy them, and normally we still do. We say we won’t but we do,” Griffin said.

    Griffin says menthol mellows the kick of cigarettes, but it wasn’t the taste that got him hooked.

    “It was about 1971. I had my first cigarette. I was 19. There was a girl, she smoked, so I thought it was kind of cool to smoke cigarettes. I didn’t realize what I got myself into when I picked up that first cigarette,” he said.

    “I mean, it’s not totally her fault. She didn’t twist my arm to have a cigarette, but being in her company–I lit up, and I lit up and lit up, and that’s where I am today, lighting up.

    Griffin’s doctor, daughter and granddaughter have all asked him to quit. The 59-year-old says, he’s thinking about it.

    “When I’m climbing stairs, I can feel the difference, so that’s what’s kind of scaring me. I possibly could have a heart attack. I could have a stroke, and I’m too close to the end to go out like that,” Griffin said. “I wanna die like an old man, mid-80s, just ease on out of here, not being rushed to the hospital because of something I should have stopped doing a long time ago. So, I’m going to work on it a little bit harder.”

    Temple University student Angelo Williams smokes Newports, too. He says methols have a lighter, airy feel–almost like a ice cube on the back of his throat. He’s not quite ready to quit, but he doesn’t buy cigarette packs anymore.

    “I just decided that I wanted a loosey–a single cigarette–and I went to the only Chinese store in the area that I know that sells them, and they were closed. It wasn’t a big deal. I’m feeling pretty in control of this,” Williams said.

    Williams is a journalism student and kept an audio diary to track his efforts to kick cigarettes. For a while, he tried switching to cigars.

    “I just woke up, and my throat is, like, killing me. It feels raw or something. I think it’s the because of the fact that I’ve been trying to compensate with Black and Milds, while I’m quitting cigarettes. It was going to be my little, backup plan and it’s not working out,” Williams said.

    For Williams, smoking and drinking go hand in hand.

    “Friday night was bad, bad, bad, bad,” he said. “I wanted to see how it would be to drink and not smoke. Suffice to say, I did not experience how it was to drink and not smoke–and they weren’t even menthols. I think it was a Marlboro Light, or something like that. Still working on that. Still working on that.

    Cutting back by bumming off friends isn’t really working.

    “I’ve just come to the realization that my friends are way too generous with their cigarettes,” Williams said. So I’ve decided from now on, I’m only going to smoke cigarettes that I’ve personally purchased. So let’s see how that goes.

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