Menthol is a substance found in mint plants, and it can also be synthesized in a lab. It creates a cooling sensation in tobacco products and masks the harshness of the smoke, making it more tolerable. Some studies have shown that menthol also acts as a mild anesthetic. Back in 1953, when menthol was not widely used, a Philip Morris Co. survey revealed that 2 percent of white smokers preferred a menthol brand, while 5 percent of Black smokers did, according to a review of tobacco industry documents by Dr. Gardiner that was published in 2004 by the medical journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.
“The industry looked at that and said, ‘We’re missing an opportunity,’ and consciously targeted the African-American community,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has long lobbied for a menthol ban and also helps fund the African American Tobacco Leadership Council.
What followed has been well-documented in records made public from numerous lawsuits, that tobacco companies have targeted Black communities with menthol cigarettes for decades. They distributed free samples, offered discounts and sponsored countless concerts and special events, among them the famous Kool Jazz Festival. Tobacco companies also gained good will by advertising in newspapers and magazines geared to a Black readership — and by donating money to civil rights organizations.
The companies have also been frequent donors to Black political candidates, and they have been generous supporters of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Officials with Juul and Altria, which owns Philip Morris and also has a 35 percent stake in Juul, serve on the foundation’s corporate advisory board.
The Biden administration still lacks a permanent F.D.A. commissioner, and Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner, has not been vocal on tobacco issues. But public health advocates were heartened by the confirmation on Thursday of Xavier Becerra, the former attorney general of California, as the secretary of health and human services. In California, Mr. Becerra took aggressive action against tobacco and e-cigarette companies. In August, California became the second state — after Massachusetts’ lead — to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products. (The law is on hold, pending an industry-sponsored referendum to repeal it, which will be on the ballot in November 2022.)
The tobacco industry is in a tricky spot. For several years, the largest companies, Altria and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, now owned by British American Tobacco, have sought to position themselves as transforming their companies into responsible businesses being eager to to preventing young people from smoking and to developing less harmful products. For critics, the industry’s lobbying to protect its menthol brands contradicts that assertion.