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Big Tobacco, Black trauma

Episode Summary

Tobacco companies have historically targeted menthol-flavored cigarettes at the Black community. As the federal government weighs a ban, the industry is doubling down.

Episode Notes

Menthol-flavored cigarettes have been controversial for decades, and the Food and Drug Administration is weighing a national ban on them. But tobacco companies are not a fan of losing out on millions of dollars with that possible move. So they’ve enlisted leaders in a community that has long been the biggest consumer of menthols: Black people.

Read the show transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times medical investigations reporter Emily Baumgaertner, and Ben Stockton of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

More reading:

How Big Tobacco used George Floyd and Eric Garner to stoke fear among Black smokers

Addicted to menthol: Big Tobacco’s targeting of Black communities could soon end

Op-Ed: Big Tobacco helped destroy Black Americans’ health. Banning menthols could help improve it

Episode Transcription


Intro Mux in

GUSTAVO: Kool. Salem. Newport. I don't smoke, but even I know that they're cigarette brands, specifically menthol cigarettes flavored with flashy ads that make it seem that only the coolest of the cool people smoke them. 

GUSTAVO: They've been controversial for decades and the Food and Drug Administration is weighing a national ban on them. But tobacco companies are not a fan of losing out on millions of dollars with that possible move. So they've enlisted leaders in a community that has long been the biggest consumer of menthols: Black people.

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GUSTAVO:  I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to THE TIMES daily news from the LA Times. 

It's Tuesday, April 26, 2022. 

Today: how big tobacco has exploited Black trauma to fight potential bans on menthol cigarettes. 

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GUSTAVO: My LA Times colleague, Emily Baumgaertner teamed up with Ben Stockton of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to report on this. They focused on cigarette giant Reynolds American and their efforts to keep menthols in the hands of Black smokers. Emily, Ben: welcome to THE TIMES.

Emily: Thanks for having us.

Ben: Yea, thanks for having us. 

GUSTAVO: Ben, last fall, you found yourself at a Marriott in Atlanta, fine dining with hundreds of Black leaders. What was the occasion?

Ben: Yeah, so I just moved from London to Atlanta a few months before and I heard about this conference that was going on, uh, which was being held by the National Black Caucus of State Legislatures, which is a group of Black state-level lawmakers and their staff. // What ended up being the most memorable speech for me was while we ate lunch on the third day; one given by a retired deputy police chief, Wayne Harris. 

Convention tape: Because I want to set the tone. I want us to keep in mind, not only the murder of this man in the streets of Minneapolis. But the unrest that occurred afterwards..

Ben: And he pulled up on the two big screens behind him a photo of George Floyd, who I'm sure everyone remembers was tragically murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. 

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Ben: And it wasn't just any photo. It was one with Chauvin actually kneeling on Floyd's neck. 

AP TAPE: And as he had his knee on his neck, he kept saying, I can't breathe. I can't breathe. 

Ben: A very emotive image. And you know, that incident sparked anti-racism protests across the world.

AP TAPE: We going to fight for our streets and we're gonna fight for justice for George. . 
AP TAPE:  No justice, no peace chanting. 

Ben: You might kind of expect that a retired police officer would be there to talk then about police reform. 

AP TAPE: I want to talk to you about how policing intersections with community, and how is the decisions you make as legislators, as citizens impact how we end up dealing with people on the streets. 

Ben: But actually he wasn't.  He was there to talk about menthol cigarettes.

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AP TAPE: If you’re gonna ban this, ban at all. If you’re gonna ban any type of tobacco product, ban everything. Not just something that is going to impact the Black and brown community, where those who do smoke,  85 to 90% of them prefer menthol products. 

Ben: And this is across kind of cities and counties across the U.S. and even some states, including California have been debating whether to ban menthol cigarettes. Partly because kind of evidence suggests that menthols are harder to quit and because the minty flavor masks the harshness of the tobacco so they're said to kind of make it easier for young people to start smoking. But they're also the flavor of choice for the vast majority of Black smokers. And what Harris was arguing, and it's something we've heard time and time again, while following these debates--is that by banning menthol cigarettes, you're essentially giving a police officer an easy excuse to stop a Black man on the street. And by showing a picture of Floyd, I think what a lot of the Black lawmakers in the audience inferred was that if you ban these cigarettes, people in their community could end up like him.

GUSTAVO: Ugh, invoking George Floyd's name to argue against a menthol ban is just exploitative and ghoulish, but as you wrote, it got even worse.

Ben: Yeah. So there are obviously genuine concerns about policing in America and who better to talk about the potential impact of banning menthol cigarettes than a former deputy chief of police. But what Harris didn't actually mention was that he also serves as the Chair of the Board of an organization called the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. That organization receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from Reynolds American and Reynolds American--as we know is a tobacco company, which owns Newport and that's by far the most popular brand of menthol cigarettes in the country. And then what we in the audience had been told, shortly after the lunch had begun, was that Reynolds American were actually footing the bill. And, you know, I later found out that they'd paid $40,000 to sponsor that lunch. And I think that demonstrates quite how serious this is for Reynolds. You know, they sell billions of dollars worth of Newport cigarettes every year and these bans are a huge threat to their business. So they want to make sure people like Harris are talking to Black lawmakers about why these bans could be bad. And you know what, we at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are doing, with the LA Times, is following how Reynolds American is using Black lobbyists and consultants to push back against these bans. What we found is that it's not always clear, like in Harris' case, that these people have ties to the company.

GUSTAVO: Emily, how did this start? How did Reynolds American and these other tobacco companies start targeting Black leaders specifically?

Emily: So Reynolds American is well aware that the influence that Black leaders have over their communities is huge. And these communities generate such a massive share of the company's revenue, as Ben mentioned. The menthol takeover in the Black community occurred over time. So in the 1950s, about 2% of white smokers chose menthol cigarettes compared to 5% of Black smokers. But after all the decades of targeted marketing that we looked into, that gap is much, much larger. Menthol is the cigarette of choice for 30% of white smokers, but 85% of Black smokers. I think to understand the market for menthol cigarettes, you have to first understand that they are the perfect gateway cigarette. They're smooth, they taste fresh. They have a lot of those cooling sensation qualities that a menthol cough drop would have if you sucked on it when your throat hurts. So almost // all African-Americans who smokes started with menthol cigarettes //  So it was obvious to Reynolds American, looking at basic data, that if they wanted to access a support base in the Black community, they should start with Black leaders.

Ben: One person who's been tracking the history of menthol cigarettes and its influence in Black communities is a Princeton history professor, Keith Wailoo. And he recently wrote a book called "Pushing Cool." And I interviewed him for this investigation.

Keith Wailoo: Concerns about the prevalence of urban billboards cultivating youth markets in Black America began to emerge in the 1980s. 

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Keith Wailoo: And people started to comment on the dramatic disproportion between, you know, Black urban billboards selling, not just tobacco, but liquor; and suburban billboards and calls for, you know, regulation or calls for revisiting or calls for cities to kind of like, in the name of the health of their population think twice. 

Ben: From the mid-'60s, the tobacco industry had really started pushing menthol cigarettes in Black communities. And then when there was talk of stricter regulations // around cigarettes, particularly in the '80s and '90s, it became a real issue for the tobacco industry. And they decided to call on some of the relationships that they built throughout marketing these cigarettes to Black communities. And one of those people was the executive director of the NAACP, Benjamin Hooks.

Keith Wailoo: But he didn't defend the right pipe praising the industry. What he did was he used the argument that the criticism of billboards was paternalistic and racist because it suggested that Black people were unable to make decisions for themselves. So he would be the face, the NAACP would be the face, defending the industries’ right.

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GUSTAVO: Emily, so you have this long, bad history with tobacco companies and menthols and the Black community. How are civil right groups reacting to this phenomenon right now?

Emily: NAACP has come out alongside public health groups in favor of a menthol ban--over time. Their take is that the targeting of this community by the tobacco industry itself was unjust. And that Black lives lost to menthol cigarettes as a result is unjust, far more unjust than the implications of a menthol ban. I think it's important to note that the bans that are being discussed is about banning the sale of menthol, not the purchase of menthol. So it's not targeting people who would pursue a purchase. I think it's also worth noting; Al Sharpton, however, who is the public face of the National Action Network--another civil rights group-- has spoken out against the ban. And the National Action Network is sponsored by Reynolds American. So you do have groups coming down on both sides.

GUSTAVO: What is Sharpton's rationalization for being against the ban?

Emily: He’s invoked the name of Eric Garner in these cases. So //  his argument is similar to other Black leaders who have been in touch with Reynolds American that this ban is going to cause unintended consequences. This is the term we hear over and over again in the scripts of all of these leaders; that if you ban this, you're going to see unintended consequences for Black Americans who are choosing menthol cigarettes. And that they're going to be more heavily policed, and it's going to create a new layer of racism in the interactions between police and the Black community.

GUSTAVO: So Reynolds American has also surrounded itself with other Black leaders. How does Reynolds American's board and executive leadership look like?

Emily: It's pretty white. 

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Emily: Despite the number of Black leaders that we've seen working on behalf of the tobacco industry, these lobbyists and public figures, there's still a significant lack of representation across both executive level and board level positions of all the major cigarette makers. In comparison to those who have lobbied for the company against banning menthol cigarettes, almost every member of the company's senior management team is white.

GUSTAVO: Coming up, Reynold's Americans use of Black trauma to stoke fears of a menthol ban gets even more brazen. 

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GUSTAVO: Okay, so Reynolds Americans is enlisting the help of Black leaders and organizations to lobby against the ban on menthols. But Ben, I still don't understand how that deputy police chief that you heard at a luncheon connected George Floyd to menthol.

Ben: The connection is really that once you ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, you're not going to entirely ban its use or people's desire to smoke menthols. And that will essentially drive the market underground. And then if a police officer, say, smells a menthol cigarette while he's walking down the street and there's somebody there smoking a cigarette, it gives him a excuse to stop that person and search that person. And, you know, few people realize about the George Floyd story is that actually he was killed just outside of a store in Minneapolis, which is known as the best place in town to buy menthols. And so you have this kind of quite chilling parallel between the menthol story. And that's why I think it's so easy for these people to bring his name into this debate. One, because it's so emotive, but two, because of those kind of tenuous links between, between Floyd and menthols.

GUSTAVO: Emily is that the only tactic they have? Because I don't see any argument about, well, you know, menthols are actually not that bad for you compared to other cigarettes. And I'm not hearing the more libertarian argument like we shouldn't ban anything. All I'm seeing is just mentioning the name of these men and women murdered by police. You know, Eric Gardner, uh, George Floyd…

Emily: Right. The, the individuals who have argued on behalf of keeping an exemption for menthols, they have acknowledged upon occasion that there is a priority for them, for young people to not smoke. They do touch upon the importance of focusing on the damage that tobacco can do in general. So they'll acknowledge that smoking is harmful for health, but that if leaders want to pursue a ban on tobacco products, they should pursue one that targets all tobacco products, not just that of choice for Black smokers. One of the tactics they've used is generating a base to show up at rallies. Paying attendees for events they might otherwise not have known about and, and generating a base to show up and show support for fighting the ban on menthol.

Ben: One thing that we uncovered during the course of this investigation was this organization called Neighborhood Forward, which again, emerged out of the protests that happened around George Floyd's murder back in 2020. It's a relatively young organization and it's led by a Black pastor from LA, a guy called KW Tulloss. And what we found was that they've been very active in voicing their opposition to California's proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, a bill called SB 793. And they've organized numerous rallies over the last couple years in LA and across California. And what we actually found was that people were being offered payment to turn up at these protests. We found one message that offered $80 for people to turn up for two to three hours one morning outside LA City Hall. And the Neighborhood Forward were providing t-shirts and signs that said "No ban on menthol" or "Whites can smoke, Blacks cannot." And so we started digging into basically where Neighborhood Forward gets its money. And we actually found very few answers, both from individuals involved in the organization, and also from what we could find from public records. But what we did find was that KW Tulloss, he used to be involved with Sharpton's National Action Network, which we know has received money from Reynolds American. Also on the board was a lobbyist who had worked for Reynolds American just a few years ago, specifically on this issue in LA. But we feel that there are unanswered questions about where Neighborhood Forward gets its money. You know, they were paying people $80 to turn up at these protests. And what seems like a genuine display of outrage // at this bill in California, actually turned up to be somewhat manufactured.

GUSTAVO: Emily, how effective has this anti-ban campaign been from getting grassroots, getting higher profile leaders? How effective is it?

Emily: It's hard to say, definitively. There's obviously a big push from influential Black leaders within these communities. But there's also many organizations who oppose this narrative and they do advocate for a ban and they have support as well. As we reported, Ben and I found out that it seemed as though the agenda that got to various pockets of the Black communities first sort of had their ear and their support. Because both sides are claiming that they're on the side of social justice. The Congressional Black Caucus is an example of another group that has gotten a lot of financial support from the tobacco industry over the years. But many of those members have since come out in favor of a federal ban.

Ben: As Emily says, there's been lots of prominent Black leaders who have spoken out in favor of these bans. And one of those people is Shirley Weber, who's now the Secretary of State for California. And she spoke about what the impact of banning menthol cigarettes would be for her community.

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Shirley weber: When I look at the history of tobacco in the Black community, it is not a cultural event. There's nothing about it that I have read in all the books that I've studied, and all the research that we've done that says Black people are more interested in methylated cigarette, and somehow or another, it represents their culture? It represents who they are? It builds up their value system? It gives them an identity? Are we insane? No, this is what we used to call watermelon politics. And if you're not familiar with that, then what happens in our community when I was a kid in the projects and what happened in the South. Politicians and others would come through our community with a wagon full of watermelon. And pass them out and talk and get votes and get support. Watermelon politics that you'd never see again.

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GUSTAVO: Just the politics of menthols and the Black community is just notorious. It just the, you know, and someone like Weber knows that history is not going to be happy to seeing that history repeat itself.

Ben: The irony of this whole debate is that the fact that menthols are more popular among Black smokers is no accident. This is something that the industry actively pursued over a series of decades, starting in the 1960s. And we're now seeing the tobacco industry trying to reap the rewards of relationships that it built over those series of decades. And that's something that Wailoo talks about in his book..

Keith Wailoo: The tobacco industry supported the wide range of Black cultural and civic organizations. And in some ways built an argument that // when other industries were leaving the city, tobacco stayed behind. / The role of organizations, like the Black Publishers, who rely on advertising dollars or civic organizations or political organizations, like the NAACP, have aligned themselves with, for much of their history, with the tobacco industry. So it's a complicated story of a set of relationships.

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Keith Wailoo: I often tell people that I grew up at the high point of the racialization of menthol smoking. That is, I grew up in New York city in the 1970s, 


Keith Wailoo: This was the kind of pinnacle of the urban billboard.


Keith Wailoo: We traveled on the subway in New York City, and there was subway ads, you had billboards on the side of buildings, you had billboards at the top of buildings. And when moved from the Bronx and Queens to suburban New Jersey, suddenly you realized that, you know, not only are there more trees, but there were fewer billboards. And suddenly you were aware that the landscape itself is sending and reinforcing all kinds of messages about identity consumption.

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Emily: A prime example of that is a 1970s study in Detroit that was commissioned by RJ Reynolds, which became a subsidiary of Reynolds American over time. The study looked at how companies should advertise on predominantly Black buses that passed through white neighborhoods. So the idea was that they were concerned that white smokers might be put off by ads for brands like Kool and Newport, that featured Black models or Black culture in the ads. So after the study, the authors decided that the bus’ exterior advertising should be targeted toward both market segments, as they called it, but that interior advertising should specifically address the Black community. That's how specifically targeted their ads became.

Keith Wailoo: There was also another turning point in 1990, when Phillip Morris came out with an ill-fated brand called Uptown, where they decided, well, we're just going to sell that street to Black folks, and we're going to test market it in Black Philadelphia. And we're going to say it's a cigarette that's intended for Black smokers and the then Secretary of Health and Human Services Deon Sullivan, who was an African American physician in a Republican administration, called out that tactic as, “slick and sinister,” and really designed to exploit and to create a culture of cancer.

Emily: A multi-billion dollar lawsuit in 1998 against the country's four largest cigarette makers did curb how the industry could advertise. Many people have heard of the master settlement agreement and witnessed what happened during that point in time. But even while those billboards are gone, and many of those bus ads, targeting young people in specific subsets of the population are gone. That demand for menthol cigarettes among Black smokers still persists.

Ben:  Like Emily said, we can kind of still feel the effect of decades of targeting by the tobacco industry. And, one of those ways is that actually still studies show that mental cigarettes can often be cheaper in predominantly Black neighborhoods compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. And part of the reason behind that is because the tobacco industry created this preference for menthol among Black smokers. And so store owners in Black neighborhoods seek contracts with the most popular manufacturers of menthol cigarettes; today that being Reynolds American. And because they have contracts with those manufacturers, they can offer discounts and cheaper prices than other stores that don't hold contracts. And so we kind of see that long tail of racial targeting by the tobacco industry, even though billboards have come down, advertising is strictly curtailed. You can still see those effects today. 

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Ben: And I actually spoke to a former salesman for R.J. Reynolds who worked in a predominantly Black neighborhoods and he felt like there was some type of unspoken acknowledgement that if the company could keep it addictive in those neighborhoods, then, then they would exploit it to the best way they possibly could.


GUSTAVO: We'll have more after the break.

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GUSTAVO: So, like I mentioned earlier, the Food and Drug Administration is looking into this federal ban on menthols. And Emily, if that goes through how bad does big tobacco get hit?

Emily: Well, the industry has grown evermore reliant on revenues from menthols. Last year, they made up more than a third of total cigarette sales, which is the highest proportion ever. Reynolds American specifically brought in over $15 billion in U.S. sales last year. And about half of those came from Newport cigarettes. So a ban on menthols would mean that the 30 billion Newport menthol cigarettes that Reynolds American sells every year would drop to zero. It's a huge hit for their market.

GUSTAVO: Ben, has there been any similar pushes on a local or a state level? 

Ben: Yeah. So I think one way in which places are responding to the delay in an FDA ban is through enacting local bands. And one example is California state level ban, which, you know, people are going to vote on in November. One debate I followed closely was in Denver late last year.

Kevin flynn: If you could please on something that hasn't yet been addressed by those who would support my amendment. 

Ben:  A council member there, Kevin Flynn, proposed a ban on flavored tobacco products; and that would include menthol cigarettes.

Kevin flynn: And that is the issue that the Black community surely prefers menthol cigarettes, I've heard that for three hearings now. But what I'm being told is that we need to adopt this ban because you have been targeted by predatory marketing. Now, I kind of feel like Captain Renault in Casablanca saying I'm shocked that a mass marketer would determine what its market is and advertise toward it. And maybe we'll go after Chivas Regal next.

Ben: Various consultants for Reynolds American ended up successfully lobbying against that measure. And that ended up never happening. One of the council members who introduced an amendment, that would have basically created a carve-out for menthol cigarettes from this flavor tobacco ban. He actually mentioned that he'd spoken to a woman by the name of Denise Edwards, and this is an old kind of acquaintance of his. He first met her decades ago while the council member was a reporter and she was working in the mayor's office in Denver. And he mentioned that he'd spoken to her and that he'd heard conflicting views from the Black community, both for and against banning menthol cigarettes. But he'd come down on the side of Edwards, // the side of the tobacco industry. But I think what was kind of important to the debate, but that wasn't mentioned, is that Edwards isn't just an old acquaintance of this council member, she's actually a lobbyist who'd been hired by Reynolds American to lobby in Denver against this ban. But she hadn't disclosed this fact on Denver's lobbying register. So although the council member said he was aware that she was working as a lobbyist, we as the public following that debate, did not know that, that she was working for Reynolds. Her former boss, the former mayor of Denver, a man by the name of Wellington Webb. He is Denver's first Black mayor and he kind of remains a very influential figure in politics in Denver. And he wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper, the Denver Post, while the council members were debating this bill, basically arguing against the menthol ban. Again, he mentioned Eric Garner, unintended consequences, a lot of the same arguments that we've seen coming from the industry. 

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Ben: A few weeks later, the Denver Post actually removed his op-ed from the website and they issued a correction that Webb hadn't told the newspaper's editors that he was also working as a consultant for Reynolds American. And I think it just shows how the industry has really been able to kind of push their views on this topic, push the conversation away from banning menthol cigarettes, towards it being an issue of racial inequality and racism without actually having to say those things themselves.

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GUSTAVO: Finally, Emily, this is a health story at the end. So if the menthol ban goes through, what do advocates expect to happen to Black lives?

Emily: Even if a menthol ban is intended to protect middle schoolers and high schoolers from starting a lifelong journey of smoking because these types of cigarettes are so palatable. It's also going to save a lot of Black lives. 

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Emily: The draft of the menthol ban estimates that it could save more than 600,000 lives, including 250,000 Black lives.


GUSTAVO: Ben, Emily, thank you so much for this interview.

Emily: Thanks for having us.

Ben: Thanks, Gustavo.

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GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode at THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. 

Tomorrow, how Elon Musk buying Twitter might mean the death of Black Twitter. 

Ashlea Brown was a jefa on this episode, and our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. Our engineer is Mario Diaz and our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera and Shani Hilton.

GUSTAVO: Our theme music is by Andrew Ethan. Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow THE T on whatever platform you use. As radioactive man once said, up and at 'em. So we're not the Poochie Podcasts. I'm Gustavo Arellano, we'll be back tomorrow with all the news in this madre. Gracias.