Earlier this week, a crowd at a press conference about tobacco use in African American communities erupted in enthusiastic applause when a Stanford researcher concluded her talk by saying, “More research is not needed.”
Lisa Henriksen, PhD, a senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, was discussing how cigarettes are marketed to African American children and teens. Henriksen argued that we know everything we need to know about how the tobacco industry hooks children on nicotine — specifically by marketing menthol-flavored cigarettes to African American youth.
The press conference, sponsored by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, was intended to publicize an open letter from the AATCLC to President Barack Obama. The letter urges Obama to direct the Food and Drug Administration to ban all flavored tobacco products, including menthol-flavored cigarettes, before he leaves office in January. Such a ban, AATCLC argues, would prevent the premature deaths of thousands of African Americans every year.
Research has consistently shown that most lifelong smokers begin smoking between the ages of 12 and 17. As former New York Times reporter Philip Hilts wrote in a 1996 book on the subject, “If it were true that the [tobacco] companies steer clear of children, as they say, the entire industry would collapse within a single generation.”
A series of lawsuits against the tobacco industry have resulted in the publication of millions of pages of tobacco industry research and policy papers. Despite public denials, these industry documents, from as far back as the 1970s, reveal tobacco companies describing the youth market as key to the industry’s success. One 1974 document notes, “For legal reasons, we have been unable to directly survey smokers under 18 years of age (as will be shown most smokers begin smoking regularly and select a usual brand at or before the age of 17).”
To help protect children, the 2009 Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA the power to regulate the marketing of cigarettes and banned flavored cigarettes, which are known to attract children. But the law made a notable exception for menthol cigarettes, which are overwhelmingly marketed in African American communities.
Speakers at Tuesday’s AATCLC conference said such focused marketing has been happening for decades. Phillip Gardiner, DrPH, of the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program, spoke of the “African Americanization of menthol marketing” and said that beginning in the early 1960s, the tobacco industry tripled advertising to African Americans. By the 1980s, he said, vans drove through African American neighborhoods giving away menthol cigarettes. “African American children have been sacrificial lambs,” he said.
Stanford’s Henriksen said that decades of research have consistently shown that the marketing tactics of tobacco companies have profound effects on the long-term health of African Americans of all ages.
For example, she said, African American youth are more likely to live near a tobacco retailer than other teens. Menthol tobacco products are also advertised more and cost less in African American neighborhoods, she said. A study by Henriksen and colleagues showed that African American middle school students were more likely to recognize the Newport brand — a menthol cigarette marketed in African American neighborhoods — than other cigarette brands. The study found that a year later, the same children who had recognized Newports were 50 percent more likely to have started smoking for the first time.
Valerie Yerger, DN, of the University of California, San Francisco, who also spoke at the press conference, concluded, “There can be no such thing as wellness for my community unless we get rid of tobacco. I’ve lost my mother, I’ve lost my grandmother to tobacco. I’m watching my brother and my uncle fighting for their lives because of their tobacco-related illnesses.”