The FDA’s deliberations over a possible ban on menthol cigarettes have touched off a firestorm of debate within the African American community, and among public health groups divided about how to wean black consumers from their heavy dependence on cigarettes spiked with the minty flavoring.
On Monday, the debate among African American organizations burst into the open after the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, joined ranks with the anti-smoking group, the American Legacy Foundation, in calling for a ban on menthol as a cigarette flavoring.
The NAACP’s appeal came just days after three other African American groups — the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives — urged the FDA to reject a ban on mentholated cigarettes. Those groups, testifying before a recent meeting of the FDA’s scientific advisory panel on tobacco products, expressed concern that banning mentholated cigarettes could spur an illicit market for the outlawed products in minority communities where they are favored. Such a trade in banned menthol cigarettes, in turn, would likely drive a range of illegal activity and put new burdens on law enforcement agencies, they warned…After decades of marketing mentholated cigarettes in minority communities and blunting criticism by supporting minority causes, the tobacco companies have secured a huge following in minority communities, where rates of smoking remain stubbornly high. As many as 80% of African American smokers favor menthols, as do 30% of Latinos. By comparison, 22% of non-Latino whites smoke mentholated cigarettes. At least one large study, published in 2009, has found that those who smoke mentholated cigarettes find it harder to kick the habit than those who smoke unflavored tobacco…“Menthol is not just a flavorant; it makes it easier for our youth to start smoking; it keeps people smoking, and it inhibits them from quitting,” said Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “Menthol makes the poison go down easier.”
“We are in a state of disbelief that some of our Black leadership organizations … continue to act as front groups for the predatory tobacco industry,” McGruder fumed.
Menthols first, McDonald’s second. What will they come for next? What’s left?
As I watched this year with my wife, Ann, we both remarked how many ads seemed to go way over the line with stereotypical images that could be considered offensive. In the months since they aired, I’ve looked further into the content of those ads and the people who produced them; and it became apparent that both areas reflected a stunning lack of cultural diversity and sensitivity.
• Only four of the 67 ads shown during the Super Bowl had an African-American male as a main character; and of those four, only two (Bud Light’s “Light House” and Doritos’ “House Rules”) involved an actor who is not a well-known celebrity. Other minorities, including minority women, did not have a leading role in any of the commercials. (Beyoncé was on the screen for less than 10 percent of her Vizio commercial, so that was not considered a leading role.) The minority actors who were present in the ads had limited speaking roles or received just a few seconds of camera time.
• There was also a lack of depictions of black middle-class families in the ads. The Doritos “House Rules” ad showed an African-American single mom ready to go on a date, reinforcing a stereotypical image of African-American women as single mothers caring for their young children with no father figure present…
A few months ago, Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney and a friend, told me he was working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to take action against the Madison Avenue agencies he felt were discriminating in the areas of race and gender. We talked about how ads bearing negative images can reinforce stereotypes and damage race and gender relations.
The inherent problem in this strategy of having Black pitchmen in commercials is the one that plagues Newport and soon, McDonald’s. Black people will find something worth complaining about, for the commercials will only reinforce negative stereotypes and the corporations peddling their wares on the airwaves will be attacked for perpetuating hateful labels and worse, hooking Black people on an addictive product.