Opinion: Ban the sale of menthol cigarettes to save Black lives

This opinion was originally published in The Detroit News, July 14, 2022

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a rule to end the sale of menthol cigarettes. Nearly 150,000 people or groups have submitted comments. But many others can not.

hero_image_alt_text===Minou Jones
thumbnail_alt_text===Minou Jones

My grandmother. My uncle. My aunt. My cousin. My best friend.

They all died because of menthols.

Smoking is a major contributor to heart disease, cancer, and stroke — three leading causes of death for Black people in the United States. Eighty-five percent of Black people who smoke use menthols, the result of a relentless, decades-long push by tobacco companies to target Black children, Black families and Black neighborhoods.

A University of Michigan study found that between 1980-2018, Black people made up 12% of the U.S. population but an astounding 41% of the premature deaths caused by menthol cigarettes. That’s 157,000 Black people dying early.

I’ve seen it.

Growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s, my parents and many others in my immediate circle smoked menthols. We were inundated with ads and images of beautiful, healthy and athletic Black people enjoying menthols. I even remember models in gold jumpsuits handing out free cigarettes at local music festivals — and learning later they were paid $10 an hour by tobacco companies, which was big money in those days.

The messages were unmistakable. Smoking is cool. Smoking is safe. Smoking is part of a fun, vibrant and healthy lifestyle. Pair those messages with a highly addictive product, and you’ve got a lethally effective combination.

It’s not like my family members didn’t want to stop smoking; they couldn’t. Menthols are intentionally designed to make smoking easier to start and harder to quit.

Consider this story. There used to be no laws against young people buying cigarettes. Once, when I was only five years old, my mother sent me out to buy cigarettes. On my way, I was hit by a car when crossing the street. I could have died. But even the horror of nearly losing a child, and my subsequent begging and pleading, couldn’t get her to stop. That’s the power of addiction.

Tobacco companies care more about the profits they earn than the families they destroy. My grandmother died from emphysema. My aunt died from lung cancer. My father has emphysema and COPD — all from smoking. I’m so proud of my mom, who managed to quit three years ago, but the damage has been done. And I constantly wonder about my own health after breathing in secondhand smoke for years.

For millions of Black families, this is our past and present. But as a mom to five Black men, I refuse to let it be our future.

I don’t have the tobacco industry’s wealth, but I do have one important advantage: the truth. And the truth is, ending the sale of menthols will save lives, reduce health care costs, lower rates of tobacco use and help eliminate health disparities that plague our communities.

Of course, tobacco companies are now claiming that ending the sale of menthols will make Black communities less safe. It’s just another lie. The FDA’s rules target the manufacturers of these deadly products, not the users. They will not lead to further interactions with law enforcement or an increase in criminalization in Black communities.

Minou JonesFor generations, tobacco companies have preyed on Black families; our lives do not matter to them. In memory of those I’ve lost and on behalf of those I’m fighting to keep, it’s my turn to send a message to them: We will not fall for the okey-doke. Your days of playing us are over.

--Minou Jones, Detroit

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