The FDA's deliberations over a possible ban on menthol cigarettes have touched off a firestorm of debate within the African American community, and among public health groups divided about how to wean black consumers from their heavy dependence on cigarettes spiked with the minty flavoring.
On Monday, the debate among African American organizations burst into the open after the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, joined ranks with the anti-smoking group, the American Legacy Foundation, in calling for a ban on menthol as a cigarette flavoring.
The NAACP's appeal came just days after three other African American groups -- the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives -- urged the FDA to reject a ban on mentholated cigarettes. Those groups, testifying before a recent meeting of the FDA's scientific advisory panel on tobacco products, expressed concern that banning mentholated cigarettes could spur an illicit market for the outlawed products in minority communities where they are favored. Such a trade in banned menthol cigarettes, in turn, would likely drive a range of illegal activity and put new burdens on law enforcement agencies, they warned.
After decades of marketing mentholated cigarettes in minority communities and blunting criticism by supporting minority causes, the tobacco companies have secured a huge following in minority communities, where rates of smoking remain stubbornly high. As many as 80% of African American smokers favor menthols, as do 30% of Latinos. By comparison, 22% of non-Latino whites smoke mentholated cigarettes. At least one large study, published in 2009, has found that those who smoke mentholated cigarettes find it harder to kick the habit than those who smoke unflavored tobacco.