A newly proposed federal ban on all menthol cigarettes that is aimed at improving the health of African Americans would have major cultural and financial impacts in Detroit, a majority-Black city where the Newport brand, among others, is very popular.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans last week to ban the sale of the flavored cigarettes as well as small cigars nationwide, saying the ban could take effect sometime within the next year, although the FDA didn’t give a date. The ban does not require congressional approval and wouldn’t apply to menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.
Menthol is a minty compound that gives flavor to cigarettes and makes smoking feel less harsh to the throat. Since 2009, it has been the only legal cigarette flavor in the U.S.
The FDA’s announcement came in response to a lawsuit filed last year by the San Francisco-based African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, which wants the menthol ban and asked the court to force the FDA to respond to a 2013 citizen petition seeking a ban.
Menthols represent about 36% of all cigarettes smoked nationwide and out of all Black smokers, 85% smoke menthol cigarettes, according to the FDA. By comparison, 30% of white smokers smoke menthols.
Even though cigarette smoking in general is declining, menthol smoking is declining slower than that of traditional cigarettes, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Proponents of the ban say that Black people also are more likely to die of smoking-related illness than white people. In 2019, an estimated 14% of all U.S. adults age 18 or older were active smokers, or 34 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Menthol cigarettes are widely popular among Detroiters and Newport brand menthols are the most stocked cigarettes at many party stores.
One pack of 20 Newports typically sells for about $9 in the city after taxes. There’s also a vibrant market for menthol “loosies,” or individual cigarettes, which sell anywhere from 50 cents to $1 apiece, or commonly three Newports for $2.
Asked the most common cigarette in Detroit, smokers tend to say Newport menthols.
“Newport — it’s the Black person’s cigarette,” Jalen Turner, 26, a two-packs-a-week Newport smoker, said last week while hanging outside the Big V Party Store on Greenfield Road on Detroit’s west side.
A family habit
Menthol ban proponents note how cigarette companies in the past targeted Black people with menthol marketing, such as a 1997 Joe Camel ad campaign that critics slammed as trying to entice Black youths into smoking. Such marketing is no longer legal.
However, Turner and other Black Detroiters interviewed for this article recalled having first picked up menthols by following the lead of relatives and friends.
“My granddaddy used to smoke Kools, my mom still smokes Capri 120 menthol — the long white cigarettes. So it’s just kind of like passed down,” he said.
Turner said he isn’t completely opposed to the menthol ban, as it would give him a good reason to quit smoking and save money.
“I’ve been telling myself for the longest time I’m going to quit smoking cigarettes, because the (habit) is getting expensive,” he said. “It’s $9 a (pack), so that’s $18 a week I could save if I wasn’t smoking.”
Menthol cigarette sales are illegal in Canada and were banned by voters in San Francisco in 2018. The Biden administration reportedly supports the FDA’s nationwide ban. Yet not all civic and business groups are on board.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association, representing more than 200 Black-owned community newspapers, joined with several Black and Hispanic law enforcement groups last month to raise concerns that a ban could give police new reasons to hassle and detain people whom they spot smoking menthols.
The FDA emphasized in its announcement that the ban would target only manufacturers, distributors and retailers of menthol cigarettes and little cigars — not individuals possessing or smoking menthols.
But the publishers association said it still worries about potential encounters between police and individuals with menthol cigarettes.
“Daily interactions between police and people of color demonstrate that a menthol ban would give police pretext to approach a smoker to find out where cigarettes were purchased in order to get to the seller of the counterfeit tobacco,” the publishers association said in a statement. “In recent times, our nation has seen far too many cases of these encounters leading to verbal and physical altercations and often fatal results.”
The American Civil Liberties Union raised similar concerns about the proposed ban in its own public statement that recalled the 2014 suffocation death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer who saw him selling loosie cigarettes without tax stamps.
The ACLU of Michigan on Monday deferred comment about the proposed ban and its potential impact in Detroit to the national ACLU. A representative for the Detroit Branch NAACP did not respond to a message seeking comment.
During a virtual presentation last week to celebrate the FDA’s ban announcement, members of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council — the plaintiff in the lawsuit that triggered the proposed ban — said they hope the ACLU comes to view the ban as a way to save Black lives from cancer and other smoking-related illness.
“I want the ACLU to join with us and defend our right to have a healthy community; don’t defend someone’s right to smoke a mentholated cigarette and kill themselves,” council co-chair Carol McGruder said.
A representative for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which owns the Newport brand, also did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Mixed opinions on a ban
In interviews outside party stores and bus stops, Detroiters who smoke menthols had mixed opinions about a potential ban.
Some didn’t like the idea of government taking away their preferred cigarettes. Yet several others, including Sheila Powe, 56, who has been smoking menthols for almost 40 years, thought an official ban will make it easier to succeed at quitting cigarettes.
“I’m glad they’re about to ban it because whatever they put in these menthols, it’s horrible, because I can’t stop,” said Powe, who smokes Kools.
“And I’m not the only one. I’ve got a brother, he’s actually on an oxygen machine, and he’s still lighting up — he’s still smoking Newports,” she added. “He has COPD, bronchitis, and I have the same thing. My doctor told me if I quit smoking, all of that will clear up.”
Melvin Sylvester, 23, took drags from a Newport cigarette while sitting at a bus stop outside Tower Center mall at Grand River and Greenfield.
He said he is trying to quit smoking and maybe replace it with vaping, which he considers less unhealthy, but has been having trouble kicking the habit as well.
He said he picked up smoking menthols from other kids back when he was in school. He compared the choice to smoke menthols with the choice to drink sweet tea versus unsweetened tea. It’s all about taste and the initial “rush.”
He predicted that even if the ban takes effect, people will find ways to skirt it and still smoke menthols.
“It’s not like it’s going to change anything,” Sylvester said.
Constance Hudson, 59, said she has been smoking since her 20s and will probably quit cigarettes if the ban happens. She smokes about one pack a day of Misty menthol green 120s.
“I don’t like regular without the menthol — it’s too strong,” she said. “If they take that out, I’ll quit.”
“Menthol masks some of the more harsh aspects of smoking cigarettes, so it’s easier for youth and young people to get involved in cigarette smoking using menthol cigarettes than cigarettes more broadly,” said David Ledgerwood, director of Wayne State University’s Division of Nicotine and Tobacco Research and also an associate professor of psychiatry and behavior neurosciences.
“From a public health standpoint, I feel like banning menthol cigarettes could have a positive effect,” he said.
Bridgette Davis, 61, a social worker and occasional Newport smoker, said she is noticing less cigarette smoking among young people than in the past. Young people today seem to prefer marijuana, which is newly legal, recreationally, in Michigan.
“The younger generation has taken cigarette smoking and put that on the back end and has picked up weed smoking,” she said. “They do not smoke as many cigarettes as they did during my generation or 20 years after me.”
One cigarette seller’s view
The owners of several Detroit party stores said they weren’t aware of the proposed federal menthol ban until approached late last week by a reporter.
One store owner said he is in fact looking forward to the ban because his store only gets 10% to 12% profit margins on menthol cigarettes, which he considers small, and he would like to repurpose the prime shelf space currently devoted to Newports to higher margin items. By comparison, liquor for him has a 15% margin and cigars are 15% to 18%.
The owner declined to give his name so as not to antagonize cigarette company sale representatives, who he said give rebates in exchange for prominent signage and shelf placement in the store. These rebates also require him to stock slow-selling nonmenthol cigarettes such as Newport Red and Golds, which he otherwise would not.
Still, he said he can’t afford to stop selling menthol cigarettes until a ban would force all his competitors to stop selling them as well. Otherwise, he will immediately lose customers who visit his store to buy Newports, then pick up other things while inside.
“I would say 40% of my customers that come in here buy cigarettes,” he said. “Of that 40%, I would say 95% of them are Newport smokers. So imagine the number I would be losing.”
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