Lecturer discusses menthol cigarette use in black community

Phillip Gardiner said cigarettes containing menthol, the only legal cigarette flavor in the U.S., are more likely to lead to dependence. Photo by Jon Mirador

Walter Chidozie Anyanwu
Contributing Writer

Companies have intentionally marketed menthol cigarettes to African-American communities for more than 50 years, according to a lecture presented Nov. 5 at the Institute for Contemporary Art.

The VCU Psychology Department hosted presenter Phillip Gardiner, program officer of the Tobacco-Related Disease Program at the University of California at Berkeley. Gardiner referred to the marketing techniques as the “African-Americanization of menthol cigarettes.” Such tactics, Gardiner said, included predatory marketing strategies in which brands used the African-American identity as a selling point for menthol cigarettes.  

The issue is especially pertinent in Richmond, given the large number of smokers and prominent black population.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of smokers in the Richmond community. We have a lot of African-American smokers,” said Thomas Eissenberg, VCU psychology professor and Center for the Study of Tobacco Products project and core director. “Probably 80 to 90 percent of them smoke menthol cigarettes.”

Menthol cigarettes are easier to inhale and therefore more dependence-inducing and harder to quit, Gardiner said.

In his lecture, Gardiner pointed out that menthol is the only cigarette flavor allowed in the U.S. The user demographic for menthol cigarettes is largely — but not limited to — people of color.

The possibility of banning menthol in the near future is “wishful thinking,” given the power of the tobacco industry, Gardiner said, but momentum against the issue could start with youth education against smoking.

“It should start locally,” Gardiner said. “Given that we have less control over politicians in Washington than we do in our own localities, it should start from there.”

Yolanda Hall, prevention coordinator with Henrico County Mental Health, attended the lecture and said it is important to take steps toward countering the use of tobacco products in young children. One way to do this is to prepare them for peer pressure and anything that might push them towards smoking.

“There are many organizations around providing platforms for young kids,” Hall said. “If we could bring all those different groups together and unite them around this one cause, it could make a big difference.”

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