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.
On Monday, the NAACP's Defense and Education Fund cited that disproportionate tobacco marketing to minorities as a reason for its support of a ban. Joined by the National Afgrica-American Tobacco Prevention Network and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, as well as by the Legacy Foundation, NAACP said the FDA "should help millions of Americans avoid tobacco-related death and disease" by banning menthol in cigarettes.
"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.
-- Melissa Healy / Los Angeles Times Exclusive