As FDA considers menthol cigarette ban, Princeton historian traces Big Tobacco’s race-based marketing

Written by
Office of Communications
Sept. 7, 2022

Half a century ago, faced with broadcast advertising bans stemming from overwhelming evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry used menthol cigarettes to secure new markets among Black Americans in urban areas.

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors other than tobacco in cigars.

Keith Wailoo, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs, saw the inescapable billboards for Kool and other “light” smokes in the New York City neighborhoods where he grew up in the 1970s. When he moved to suburban New Jersey, the billboards were missing. That stark disparity sparked an interest that ultimately led this researcher of the history and health policy to write his latest book.

In “Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette,” Wailoo documents the history of menthol cigarettes and racial marketing, setting the context for the impending FDA decision.

Wailoo discussed the book, his research behind it and why the FDA is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes in a Twitter Spaces discussion Thursday, Sept. 8, hosted by the School of Public and International Affairs. The discussion session will be moderated by Pam Belluck, a member of Princeton's Class of 1985 and a health and science writer at The New York Times.

Wailoo recently spoke about his book, published by the University of Chicago Press in November, in a video interview with Danielle Capparella of the Office of Communications. This Q&A has been condensed from the video, which was filmed and edited by Megan Osborne.

In brief, what’s the essence of “Pushing Cool”?

It's the history of how the menthol cigarette became such a controversial substance in American consumer culture and public policy, such that it is on the cusp of being banned by the Food and Drug Administration. It's also the history of racial marketing. Menthol cigarettes are about a century old in American consumer culture. Menthol is an oil that delivers a distinctive sensation, that feeling on your nose or your throat or your mucus membranes of coolness. It’s a deceptive sensation because it doesn't lower the temperature in your throat at all, and it certainly doesn't expand your airways.

We’ve known for a long time that cigarette smoking is hazardous to your health. Does menthol make a difference?

According to public health officials and medical science, the menthol cigarette is more hazardous for two reasons. One is that they're harder to quit. Two is that they are more addictive, and the more addictive the tobacco product, the more likely it is that you're going to smoke over a longer time, developing the characteristic health problems associated with long-term tobacco consumption — lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease.

How did menthol cigarettes become associated with Black Americans?

The list is really long and quite tragic. Menthol cigarettes began their journey through American consumer culture as a health cigarette in the 1920s for smokers who were experiencing what was called smoker's throat, who needed a medicated kind of relief. Of course, there's nothing medicated about menthols, but it was sold as a kind of therapeutic break.

Even in the 1950s when cigarettes became associated through epidemiological studies with rising rates of cancer, smoking rates for these brands increased because of the perception that menthols were somehow safer. It's really in the 1960s that you see a massive pivot by industry to advertising menthols in Black communities, starting with Kool cigarettes in around 1964.

To understand that pivot, you have to understand the way in which the concern about the safety and the health of cigarettes had accumulated to such an extent that the industry was under fire from regulators to stop advertising, particularly to young smokers. And faced with the contraction of the youth market, industries like the makers of Kool began to look for growth markets and identify “poverty markets” as the new growth area.

One company began aggressively advertising Kool cigarettes in Black communities, and because of the popularity and the growth and the success of their strategy, other companies joined in. What you begin to see in the 60s and the 1970s is kind of intensive competition to garner and to control their Black franchise.

The history of tobacco regulation is the history of what you might call uneven regulation — that is to say, regulators concerned about some smokers being unfairly targeted but not concerned as much about other smokers.

What drew you to research this topic?

I've always taught about the menthol cigarette and the debate over whether it should be banned. I would say there's also a personal feature of this, which is that I grew up in New York City in the 1970s at the time when these billboards were going up. I grew up in the Bronx and Queens where you could see billboards everywhere. When I moved to a suburban New Jersey town in the mid-1970s, I didn't see any billboards anymore.

What allows me to write this book is the fact that by the late 1990s, the attorneys general of numerous states, alongside the Department of Justice, decided that the history of deceptive advertising by tobacco companies denying the fact that cigarettes were hazardous to one's health had gone on too long, and they sued the industries and they settled.

One of the terms of that settlement was making available internal documents for how markets were built, how marketing was done, who was advertised to, and what the themes of advertising were and who supported this industry. This evidence base allows me to look behind the curtain and to see how it is these specific markets were created in urban America.

When did the movement to ban menthol cigarettes start in the federal government?

The FDA in 2009 for the first time was given regulatory oversight of tobacco products. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 delivered a Democrat in the presidency and also Democratic control of both houses of Congress. We had a unique moment to do something that had never been done before, which was to regulate this product that was seen as uniquely detrimental to the health of the American public. What happened in 2009 was a decision not just to regulate tobacco products, but to ban all flavored cigarettes, an illegitimate enticement particularly for young smokers. But menthol was exempted from that flavor ban because of the success of the tobacco industry in winning supporters among Black elected officials who argued successfully that menthol was a flavor preference among African Americans.

With the Biden administration in power, we have a new proposed rule to ban menthol cigarettes. If it is adopted, what will the benefits be?

I think the most important byproduct of the ban on the menthol cigarette is saving hundreds of thousands of lives of smokers who would perhaps quit. But the important thing is another generation of smoker who would never start. The health implications of that, in a positive sense, are tremendous.