The longest Samuel Johnson has ever been able to give up menthol cigarettes is three months. Every time he tries to quit, he said, that cool, minty flavor that first drew him and other African-American smokers to menthols lures him back.
“Everybody has a habit and mine is smoking cigarettes,” said Johnson, 20, standing outside Harold Washington College downtown between classes with other young students, many of them puffing on menthols.
Johnson, who began smoking at age 17, is unfazed, he said, that the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, which for decades were heavily marketed to minorities. If they do, he said, he’ll just try to find a way to get them on the streets.
The FDA hearings have led to a fervid debate in the African-American community about whether a ban would curb smoking or lead to a crime-ridden black-market industry.
The controversy intensified last week, when 11 new studies funded by the National Cancer Institute and published in a special supplement to the journal Addiction found that African-Americans and young adults disproportionately smoke menthol cigarettes and are less successful when they try to quit.
The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund has joined forces with the American Legacy Foundation, an antismoking group, to support an FDA ban in an effort to keep another generation of young people from being drawn in.
According to the NAACP, the FDA discriminated against African-American children by banning the sale of clove and fruit-flavored cigarettes last year while exempting menthol-flavored cigarettes. The FDA formed a committee that recently heard testimony on menthol safety and its impact on blacks. A report is expected next spring.
“The rationale for eliminating candy flavor was entirely about stopping kids from smoking,” said John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s legal defense fund. “Black kids are lured in by menthol cigarettes. So if you really want to do something about that, you ought to do something about that one remaining flavor.”
Community activists charge that cigarette companies continue to target young smokers with advertising designed to make smoking seem cool. The strategy, they charge, is to attract smokers before they turn 18, turning them into lifelong customers.
Lorillard Tobacco Co., manufacturer of Newport, the best-selling menthol cigarette, said the company markets its products in a responsible way, targeting all segments of the adult population. The company also said it supports efforts to deter young people from ever smoking.
But banning menthol cigarettes, the company said, would force 30 percent of the cigarette market to go underground and deal a blow to state and federal governments, which would lose $40 billion in excise taxes and settlement fees collected each year from the sale of cigarettes.
“A ban of menthol would not have the consequence of improving public health,” said Lorillard spokesman Gregg Perry. “In fact … a ban on menthol cigarettes would fuel an underground criminal enterprise and lead to the illegal sale of more dangerous cigarettes than those now being sold by regulated companies.”
For the most part, it is the same argument offered by the Congress of Racial Equality, the Black Law Enforcement Executives and the Black Chamber of Commerces, which have urged the FDA not to impose a ban.
Surveys show that 80 percent of African-American smokers favor menthols, compared with 22 percent of whites and 30 percent of Hispanics. Congress of Racial Equality spokesman Niger Innis said banning them would unfairly target African-American smokers.
“We abhor the federal government acting as big daddy to individuals exercising a legal choice, which is what using menthol cigarettes is,” Innis said.
Opponents, however, said they are primarily concerned about young smokers. About 44 percent of smokers between ages 12 and 17 use menthol cigarettes, according to national survey data.
If a ban is imposed, advocates said, it should be accompanied by better access to cessation programs.
According to a report last week from a coalition, including Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Illinois spends $9.5 million a year on tobacco prevention and cessation, which is only 6.1 percent of the $157 million recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year, the state will collect $848 million from the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, but will spend just 1.1 percent of it on prevention programs, the report said.
Officials at the Illinois Department of Public Health acknowledged that funding has decreased from a high of $45.9 million in fiscal year 2002, when the state had a budget surplus, to $12 million this fiscal year, when there is a deficit. Over the last five years, funding has largely remained flat, with most of the tobacco revenues going to fund health care costs, such as Medicaid, a provision allowed in the tobacco settlement.
“Things have changed and the finite amount of state resources has put us in this position,” said Tom Schafer, deputy director of the state health department’s Office of Health Promotion. “Our ability to afford different types of programs has been compromised and things like tobacco prevention have not gotten as much money as they used to.”
For community activists in neighborhoods such as North Lawndale, where the percentage of smokers is 70 percent higher than the city average, lack of funding poses a challenge. Cessation programs, such as one run by the Sinai Urban Health Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center on the West Side, have shut down, and boxes of pamphlets and expired nicotine patches are packed away in a storage closet.
“We used to go to schools, churches and the YMCA. Now we don’t have the money for any kind of outreach,” said the institute’s program director, Joseph West. “We are seeing higher rates in most African-American neighborhoods while smoking rates in other neighborhoods have gone down.”
By Dahleen Glanton