The historical ‘messy, moral dilemma’ of marketing menthol cigarettes to Black communities

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An ad from 1989 shows two people with the city in the background, as the slogan reads: Uptown. The Place. The Taste.

Uptown was a mentholated cigarette brand designed and targeted to African American smokers by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1989. A coalition of Black community leaders in Philadelphia fought against the rollout in their city, and the company eventually withdrew the brand. (Courtesy of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that its proposed ban on menthol cigarettes could reduce as many as 200,000 tobacco-related deaths among African Americans.

The proposal, which is taking public comments until July 5, is a long time coming: A whopping 85% of Black smokers use menthol tobacco products, and advertisers have had a long history of marketing the flavor to this group.

In Philadelphia in the 1980s, a vocal group of Black community leaders was able to stop a new brand of menthols from making it to market, after the activists captured the attention of a federal official.

HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan: ‘This is corporate irresponsibility’

It was 1989, and Louis Sullivan was on a flight from the Middle East to Philadelphia, when the then-U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services first spotted the headline in the International Herald Tribune: A community coalition in Philadelphia was protesting the planned launch of a new menthol cigarette brand called “Uptown.”

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“It was very clear that this was targeted toward the Black community,” Sullivan said in a recent interview with WHYY News.

In its heyday, North Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, located at Broad and Dauphin, hosted famous Black entertainers, like the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, and Run DMC.

Not only was the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company using the theater’s name to target menthol cigarettes to Black customers, but it was also planning a six-month test run in Philadelphia for its new product.

Sullivan — who served as HHS secretary under President George Bush from 1989 to 1993 and is now chairman of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform the Health Professions in Washington, D.C — was heading to speak at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I told my staff, ‘Don’t send the draft of my speech over to the White House until the morning that I’m going to be in Philadelphia.’ The reason for that was I was very much aware that the tobacco companies frequently work to have former members of their staff working as White House assistants to look out for the interests of the tobacco industry,” he said.

In an unprecedented move, Sullivan wrote a letter to the CEO of R.J. Reynolds, calling the Uptown marketing “despicable.”

“I said, ‘This is corporate irresponsibility. This is really earning dollars at the expense of the health of the Black community,’ and I demanded that R.J. Reynolds stop its plans to introduce this cigarette into Philadelphia.’”

Community members continued their protests. Editorials in local and national papers and magazines condemned the brand. And by 1990, the tobacco company withdrew the product.

A newspaper article announces that the company is dropping cigarettes marketed to Black community.
Column by Robert Newberry Houston Post, page A-21 Jan 24, 1990. (Courtesy of Alan Blum “Of Mice and Menthol: The Targeting of African Americans by the Tobacco Industry” (2018) https://csts.ua.edu/minorities/)

“I was pleased with the reaction there,” Sullivan said. “Because I was very much dedicated to doing everything I could as secretary to improve the health of all Americans, but particularly those who have been marginalized, whose health is not as good as that of the white community.”

Banning menthol — winning the battle, but not the war?

Dr. Jamie Garfield, a pulmonologist and associate professor of thoracic medicine at Temple University’s School of Medicine, says the proposed menthol ban is the “single most significant action the FDA has taken” in its 13-year history regulating tobacco products.

“There’s a big menthol use problem in the United States,” Garfield said. “And there have been a lot of state directed restrictions on the sale of menthol products, but there hasn’t been a federal restriction on manufacturing and sales.”

But some experts say the biggest question concerning menthol cigarettes has yet to be answered: Why did tobacco brands target African-American communities so aggressively in the first place?

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Dr. Alan Blum, a family physician and director for the University of Alabama’s Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, said that even after R.J. Reynolds pulled Uptown cigarettes off the market, the company quietly introduced a brand called Salem Black Label just a few months later, in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, to the same Black customers.

Blum is a historian and curator of the center’s Of Mice and Menthol exhibit, which examined the history of tobacco companies targeting minority communities.

Though that history is well documented, determining why menthol cigarettes became the choice for African Americans is still a mystery, Blum said.

“I don’t think anyone has ever found exactly how menthol became the type of cigarette of choice of African Americans,” he said. “For whatever reason, Ebony magazine and Jet magazine, which were the two leading publications aimed at African Americans, never ran a single non-menthol cigarette advertisement.”

An old newspaper article with the headline "Don't Aim That Pack at Us"
News article by Michael Quinn, Time, vol. 135, n. 5, page 60 Jan 29, 1990. (Courtesy of Alan Blum “Of Mice and Menthol: The Targeting of African Americans by the Tobacco Industry” (2018) https://csts.ua.edu/minorities/)

Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business whose research focuses on brands and “identity loyalty,” said that all brands attempt to make a “cultural connection to a lifestyle” that could be focused on a particular type of community, or even a racial group

“One way they might do that is to tell a story,” Reed said. “Implying or inferring to a specific racial group like African Americans that this [menthol cigarettes] is part of the accouterment for being a successful individual in the Black community.”

This type of branding practice presents a “messy, moral dilemma for companies,” Reed said, “because they’re attracted to these different communities because there’s money there.”

A ban on menthol cigarettes may help reduce the number of tobacco-related deaths over time. Blum, however, doesn’t believe a ban will solve the bigger public health issue.

“In the dozen years since the FDA was granted regulatory powers over tobacco, believe it or not, more cigarette brands have come onto the market. Approved by the FDA,” he said.

“How can they possibly do that? Because as written, the law only says that to get on the market, a cigarette basically can’t be any more harmful than the existing cigarettes are. If this sounds crazy, trust me, it is.”

Whether the menthol ban solves health disparities in the African American community, he said, remains to be seen.

Support for WHYY’s coverage of health equity issues comes from the Commonwealth Fund.

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