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Statewide campaign shows tobacco industry targets Black people with menthol cigarettes

Bryan Costin

Health officials have launched a statewide campaign called "It’s Not Just," which highlights the way the tobacco industry aggressively targets African American communities.

Leslie Kohman, chief wellness officer at Upstate University Hospital, said tobacco companies have been pushing menthol cigarettes in African American communities since the 1930s. And they’re still doing it today.

"They’re really shameless, just a few years ago, Altria contributed a million dollars to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History,” Kohman said. “I mean they are really targeted."

And that campaign trickles all the way down to the corner stores in African American neighborhoods in central New York, according to Tobacco-Free CNY program coordinator Karyn Johnson.

"You’ll notice that the advertising is different there,” Johnson said. “There’s more shelf space dedicated to menthol products. There’s more advertising."

And it’s worked. Eighty-five percent of African American smokers light up menthol cigarettes, compared to 29% in other demographics.

The problem with menthol cigarettes said Kohman, is it’s easier to start smoking them, and harder to quit. That’s why she’s pleased that the FDA in April announced plans to ban menthol as a flavor in cigarettes, sometime in the next year.

"I think it will be less likely that young people will start to smoke, because it won’t be as easy,” Kohman said. “If they switch to non-menthol cigarettes, they’re more likely to quit because quitting is more easy for non-menthol, than for menthol smokers."

Smoking-related illnesses are the number one cause of death in the African American community.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.