To save African American lives, flavored tobacco ban must include menthol cigarettes

Time to snuff out flavored tobacco? This is what standing-room-only crowd heard from Sacramento City Council

The Sacramento City Council will vote on whether to outlaw the sale of hookah, vape cartridges, menthol cigarettes and other forms of flavored tobacco after a unanimous council vote October 23, 2018.
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The Sacramento City Council will vote on whether to outlaw the sale of hookah, vape cartridges, menthol cigarettes and other forms of flavored tobacco after a unanimous council vote October 23, 2018.

Big Tobacco has mercilessly targeted African Americans since the 1960s with the heavy marketing of menthol cigarettes. In California, 70 percent of African American adults who smoke consume menthols compared to just 18 percent of white adults who smoke.

Big Tobacco is trying to stop public health efforts to prohibit flavored tobacco sales in Sacramento by putting forward a proposal to exempt menthol cigarettes from restrictions.

Lives are at stake. Menthol cigarettes will kill more than 4,400 African Americans by 2020, according to the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. An additional 460,000 African Americans will start smoking because of menthol-flavored tobacco products.

If 10 percent of menthol smokers quit nationally, it could prevent more than 4,000 smoking-related deaths in 10 years. More than 300,000 lives would be saved over 40 years, including almost 100,000 African American lives. In a national study, nearly half of all African Americans said they’d quit if menthol cigarettes were prohibited.

That’s why the NAACP adopted a unanimous resolution to support state and local policy efforts to restrict sales of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products at its 2016 national convention.


Ending flavored tobacco sales is a social justice issue. Menthol cigarettes are disproportionately used by African American, Asian American, LGBTQ and low-income communities already burdened by tobacco-related disease, including lung cancer. African American men are more likely to be diagnosed and die from lung cancer than any other population.

Nearly one-third of African Americans in Sacramento County smoke. Big Tobacco preys on them, making their deadly products cheaper and more available in predominantly black, lower-income neighborhoods. In Oak Park, which is 18 percent African American with a median income of nearly $34,000, a pack of Newport menthol cigarettes is 75 cents cheaper than in East Sacramento, which is two percent African American with a median income about $90,000.

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Dr. David Tom Cooke
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Dr. Philip Gardner

Flavored tobacco products are also key in the tobacco industry’s ruthless strategy to transform our children into addicted tobacco users. It’s time to halt Big Tobacco’s predatory attempts to hook kids via flavored “starter kits.”

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm our fears. Tobacco use among teens is rising largely from skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes. The CDC study shows e-cigarette use among high schoolers jumped 78 percent last year.

To stop this public health crisis, more than 30 cities and counties in California have enacted sales restrictions for flavored tobacco products. San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed Prop. E last year to protect kids from flavored tobacco.

Now, e-cigarette makers have access to Big Tobacco’s deep pockets. Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, bought a 35 percent stake in JUUL, the most popular e-cigarette brand used by kids.

Tobacco lobbyists are working furiously behind the scenes to halt efforts by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the state’s other major health organizations to protect Sacramento’s youth and underserved communities.

We urge the city council to protect the health of Sacramentans and make a stand for social justice. Reject Big Tobacco’s iniquitous proposal to exempt menthol tobacco from any restrictions and pass the ordinance that the Law and Legislation Committee sent to the full council last October.

Dr. David Tom Cooke, M.D., is the head of General Thoracic Surgery at the University of California, Davis and Task-Force Chair of the Comprehensive Lung Cancer Screening Program. Dr. Phillip Gardiner, Dr. P.H., is the co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.