by Clarence Nicholas
NAACP Milwaukee President
The tobacco industry decades ago launched a devastating campaign to target the Black community with its products, its primary tool being menthol cigarettes. This sustained attack on Black health has resulted in profits in the billions and the deaths of millions.
Understandably, health and social and racial justice advocates, among many others, saw great promise in the proposal by the Food and Drug Administration to remove menthol cigarettes from the market. Many saw the ban as a way to change that trajectory and put action behind the statement, “Black Lives Matter.”
That promise is now tempered by disillusionment and utter disappointment as the White House announced recently that any action on menthol won’t happen until at least March. It’s no secret why the Biden Administration changed its tune, or at least muted it for now. The tobacco industry and its powerful lobby have funded a campaign using false statements, some being carried by prominent Black activists, to stoke fears that a ban on menthol will cause more harm than good.
Think about that for a second. Tobacco kills 45,000 African Americans a year and is a prime contributor to the three main causes of death among African Americans: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Menthol, a product used by 85% of Black smokers nationally and 89% of Black smokers in Wisconsin, is the primary cause of this carnage, the direct result of a successful targeting campaign by the tobacco industry. Banning menthol will save up to 650,000 lives in 40 years, including more than 200,000 Black lives, research estimates have found. How is this a bad thing?
I’m not here to say that the tobacco lobby arguments against the ban are baseless. They play upon legitimate fears of the Black community in regards to overpolicing and police brutality. But, instead of addressing those legitimate concerns by standing behind social justice and taking actions such as ending their relentless targeting campaign of the Black community, they’re using the argument to keep our communities in harm’s way. To keep profits rolling their way.
Here’s the facts. The menthol ban will be enforced against manufacturers and retailers, not against individual consumers or smokers of menthol. It would not make it illegal to possess menthol cigarettes. The menthol ban is also not a campaign issue and will not hurt Biden at the polls. The NAACP of Milwaukee, faith and community groups, residents and many others stand strongly in favor of the ban. We know it will save lives and the tobacco industry and the Biden Administration know it too. It’s time to stop talking about it and take action before more Black lives are lost to menthol tobacco.
NAACP Milwaukee President