When I was growing up in New York in the 1970s, both of my parents were physicians and both of my parents smoked. I remember the ads as a child for “Joe Cool” and menthol cigarettes in popular magazines such as Ebony and Essence and on billboards everywhere in our community.
My mom started smoking with menthol cigarettes, which led to more than 60 years of nicotine addiction. Though my parents smoked, I knew that cigarettes were not healthy from an early age and was willing to do anything I could to express my concern — sometimes even getting a little creative.
One snowy night when I was 5 years old, I found my mother’s last few cigarettes, crushed them and flushed them down the toilet. Needless to say, I was promptly bundled up to go to the grocery store to get her another pack. It was at that moment that I realized how addictive those cigarettes were. Who goes to the grocery store in the middle of a snowstorm? It was clear to me that her cravings were stronger than anything that common sense would stop.
It’s been more than a decade since federal law eliminated flavored cigarettes in the United States, with one notable exception: menthol. The flavor that hooked my mom from the start.
Like my parents, I became a physician too and I chose pediatrics. Now I live and work in Florida and have seen the impact of nicotine addiction on my own young patients.
In just a few days, the federal government has the opportunity to prevent menthol cigarettes from being sold and in doing so, protect the Black communities suffering most from addiction. Ninety percent of Black smokers are menthol smokers, due to the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing tactics.
Among Florida high school youth, 4.8 percent reported smoking cigarettes in 2019. And in our state, 4,100 kids under 18 become new daily smokers each year. As pediatricians, we know that tobacco use is a “pediatric disease” because it almost always begins in adolescence.
Before the end of this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to make a decision on whether it will once and for all prohibit menthol cigarettes in the United States, a move that would have a profound impact on the health of Black communities. Some states have chosen to ban flavors like menthol on their own, but Florida is not one of them.
It is no secret that the tobacco industry targets advertising campaigns to hook Black children to their deadly and addictive menthol products. In fact, more tobacco ads are found in Black communities than in other communities. That is why it is not surprising that menthol products are used disproportionately in communities of color — while nearly 90 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, only 29 percent of white smokers do.
Menthol creates a cooling effect, reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke and suppresses coughing, making it easier for the beginner smoker to become addicted to the nicotine rush. Among Black 12- to 17-year-olds who had ever used a tobacco product, 71.9 percent smoked menthol cigarettes. I see the impact of Big Tobacco’s marketing tactics too often, as these kids are my patients. Similar to my own family, for many Black families in Florida, both parents and kids are impacted.
I am convinced that no single policy would do more to address the health disparities in morbidity and mortality caused by tobacco product use than the elimination of menthol as a flavor in cigarettes. One study found that prohibiting menthol tobacco products would result in 300,000 lives saved, including 100,000 Black lives.
It is estimated that 270,000 kids under 18 and alive in Florida will ultimately die prematurely from smoking. By prohibiting menthol, the FDA has an opportunity to not only protect Florida’s children from the tobacco industry’s marketing schemes but also ensure children everywhere can grow up free of nicotine addiction. I’ll never forget that snowy night grocery store run, and I hope other Black families will never have to confront the power of nicotine addiction the way my family did. Now is the moment to act.
Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley is a pediatrician in Florida, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Florida Chapter and a member of the AAP Committee on Federal Government Affairs.