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Menthol Cigarettes and Social Justice Views

young woman smoking with cloud puff smoke in front of face
Understanding the perceptions of those targeted by marketing of flavored tobacco
  • Client
    Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
  • Dates
    2019 - 2021

Problem

Black Americans are disproportionately targeted by advertising for menthol cigarettes.

Top-selling mentholated cigarette brands like Newport and Kool specifically target Black smokers. The result is that 17 out of every 20 Black American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. And it’s not a coincidence that Black Americans die at a higher rate from cancer and other tobacco-related illnesses.

Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2022 proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, the industry has historically vigorously opposed and successfully blocked such regulation, in part by enlisting allies in the civil rights movement who argue that regulation would be racist because of its outsized effect on Black smokers.

Solution

NORC explored whether smoking could be reframed as a social justice issue. 

In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests across the country, it became more widely accepted that, as a group, people of color and particularly Blacks are systematically disadvantaged. The life expectancy of Black Americans, for instance, fell by 2.9 years in 2020, while dropping 1.2 years for whites. Would Black youth and young adults be more supportive of regulating menthol cigarettes and e-cigarette pods if it were put in the context of social justice?  

With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NORC at the University of Chicago conducted surveys and focus groups with teens and young adults, with an oversampling of Black and Hispanics, to find out. We also interviewed prominent tobacco-control researchers and policy experts and analyzed social media to measure the frequency and reach of paid and unpaid messaging on tobacco.

Result

Young people did not agree that menthol cigarettes were a social justice issue.

We discovered that young people care deeply about social justice and broadly support the regulation of menthol cigarettes. But they do not think menthol cigarette marketing that targets Black Americans is a social justice issue. Younger people also are unconcerned about targeted advertising and marketing.

Project Leads

“The most interesting takeaway was neither youth nor young adults perceived menthol cigarette marketing as a social justice issue.”

Senior Fellow, Public Health

“The most interesting takeaway was neither youth nor young adults perceived menthol cigarette marketing as a social justice issue.”

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