Big Tobacco targets minority youth

According to a recent Stanford University Medical School study, described in Science Daily, the big tobacco companies are trying to lure minority youth into smoking menthol cigarettes. Even thought these companies know many of the these young people will eventually die from smoking their product, and they claim not to be targeting young people, the evidence uncovered by the Stanford report makes it clear these companies are out to make a profit by selling as much death and disease as they can to minority youth.

The Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of banning menthol in cigarettes. The report’s lead researcher, Lisa Henriksen, PhD, says, “The tobacco companies went out of their way to argue to the Food and Drug Administration that they don’t use racial targeting. This evidence is not consistent with those claims.”

Menthol is used to makes cigarettes less harsh and is said in company ads to bring about a feeling of “freshness.” The major users of these kinds of cigarettes are teenagers, minorities and the poor (“low-income populations”). The FDA tasked the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to study the health hazards of menthol cigarettes, and the committee concluded, “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”

This is not very startling, since removing all cigarettes would benefit public health. Naturally, we didn’t need a special committee to know that banning menthol cigarettes would be beneficial. The recommendation is non-binding anyway. The committee is going to meet again in the middle of July to write up a final report. Let’s hope it is more specific than the quote in Science Daily.

The FDA should ban menthol cigarettes just to stop the industry’s predation against middle and high school students. The committee, which has the Stanford report, should really come down hard on the industry. It was charged. Dr, Henriksen said, “with considering a broad definition of harm to smokers and other populations, particularly youth. We think our study, which shows the predatory marketing in school neighborhoods with higher concentrations of youth and African-American students, fits a broad definition of harm.”

The report reveals an increase in cigarette use by youth between 2004 and 2008, and that of people ages 12-17, 71.9 percent of African American youth prefer menthol brands (the figures for whites was 41 percent and Hispanics 47 percent). Comparing the actions of Newport (menthols made by Lorillard) with Marlboro Reds, the report shows that Newport offers special price reductions around schools that have a large African-American enrollment. Other brands were also studied.

The study found that ads for menthol cigarettes increased by almost 6 percent near schools for every increase in the proportion of African-American students of 10 percent, and Newport cut the price of a pack by 12 cents for each of those 10 percent increases.

In the surrounding neighborhoods, Newport seemingly checked out the proportion of youth ages 10-17 (!). For each 10 percent increase in their proportion, they increased ads by 11.6 percent, and the odds were 5.3 percent higher that Newports would sell at discounted prices. Marlboro Reds had no ads or price changes related to the presence of youth or African-American students.

We now know that despite the industry claims African-American teens are being especially targeted. Stephen Fortmann, MD, who also participated the study, said, “When kids are exposed to more cigarette advertising, they are more likely to start smoking, which will undoubtedly lead to dire health consequences. Our study finds that tobacco companies are trying to make smoking more attractive to teens, when we as a society should be doing just the opposite. Adding menthol to cigarettes makes it easier to smoke and harder to quit, so the public health community strongly supports an FDA ban on menthol flavoring.”

My prediction: The FDA will vote for the ban, and the Supreme Court will overturn it as a violation of free speech. Libertarians and tea party folks will be against the ban as an infringement of personal liberty.

What 10 year old doesn’t want a Newport to suck on while playing a slice ’em and dice ’em video game?

Photo: Andrij Bulba // CC 2.0


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.