Opinion: End the deadly hold of menthol cigarettes over African American community

By Rev. Horace L. Sheffield, III, MA, MPA

Cigarettes kill. That’s not hyperbole nor a cheap attempt at being provocative. It’s a statement of fact.

Now, imagine that deadly product being fortified with menthol, an ingredient that accelerates addiction. An ingredient that masks the harshness of tobacco, thus making it easier to indulge. An ingredient that includes harmful chemicals that are more easily absorbed in the body. 

There’s no need to imagine it. One only needs to open their eyes to see it happening right now. Big Tobacco has long pushed menthol cigarettes into the marketplace, but it’s been especially acute in African American communities. Some years ago, the industry used African Americans’ love of art and music to lure us into a perpetual sales pitch for their deadly products. The tobacco industry often sponsored music festivals and other cultural events to promote and give away their menthol products — all under the guise of supporting the African American community. 

It was all a ruse. 

Big Tobacco has as much interest in genuinely supporting us as they do in ceasing the sale of their products. And the government’s wink-and-nod to Big Tobacco’s morally bankrupt intentions has been conspicuous.

Listen to ‘On The Line’: How Detroit got hooked on menthol

It didn’t have to be that way. President Barack Obama signed the Tobacco Control Act in 2009 that, in part, banned flavored cigarettes — all except menthol.

So, on one hand, America’s power structure tacitly acknowledged the harmful effects of flavored tobacco.

But on the other hand, they ignored the far-reaching and detrimental effects of this decision and those negatively impacted by it.

Had the Tobacco Control Act included menthol, it is estimated that more than 320,000 deaths would have been averted by 2050, had a menthol ban gone into effect soon after the legislation passed. In April, the Food & Drug Administration finally issued proposed rules to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. Now they must act quickly to implement these rules to stem the tide of preventable disease and death.

But the result of the tobacco industry pushing menthol products in the African American community has been devastating. More than 70% of African American youth ages 12 to 17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes, and African American adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Those facts translate into more addiction in the African American community, more suffering, and more death. 

I lived it.

My mother smoked menthol cigarettes for years. She developed emphysema, which cut her life short at the young age of 43.

I was 16 at the time, and harbored anger and resentment for years. While the pain of losing her to a preventable disease remains, I long ago turned my attention as a social change agent with a spiritual mandate to lending my voice to causes focused on raising awareness of menthol cigarettes’ harmful effects.

One of those causes is No Menthol Sunday.

No Menthol Sunday takes place around the country on May 15, 2022. It is an annual day of observance that raises public awareness of the perils of menthol products.

It’s absurd that a national campaign sharing the dangers of menthol cigarettes is even necessary in today’s world. But as long as Big Tobacco continues to put profits over people, commerce over conscience, and money over morals, we will remain in this deadly predicament. 

Rev. Horace L. Sheffield III is the pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship.