Get Well Wednesday: Why Menthol Cigarettes Are So Dangerous To Your Health

 IS THERE ONE KIND OF CIGARETTE THAT’S BETTER OR WORSE THAN OTHERS? No, all cigarettes are deadly; however, menthol is what entices people to begin smoking and keeps...

 IS THERE ONE KIND OF CIGARETTE THAT’S BETTER OR WORSE THAN OTHERS?

No, all cigarettes are deadly; however, menthol is what entices people to begin smoking and keeps people smoking.

African-Americans, who, when compared to the general population, are disproportionately burdened by tobacco. 45,000 African-Americans die unnecessarily due to smoking tobacco. 80% of African-American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. The tobacco-related diseases affecting African-Americans have been directly linked to the presence of menthol flavored tobacco products in their communities. Menthol is a flavoring additive that makes it easier to smoke because it masks the harsh taste of tobacco.

Big Tobacco companies target youth and most minorities, including African-Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Latinos and the LGBT community. Menthol cigarettes lure youth into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

WHAT’S THE AVERAGE AGE WHEN PEOPLE START SMOKING?

Studies indicate the peak years for first trying to smoke appear to be in the sixth and seventh grades (or between the ages of 11 and 13), with a considerable number starting even earlier. Considering the harm to the brain due to nicotine, this is a very serious problem that has lifetime negative health impacts.

WHAT IS THE FDA DOING TO BAN MENTHOL PRODUCTS?

Nothing!  Although armed with unequivocal data about the disproportionate targeted marketing, and the role it plays in youth smoking initiation, difficulty in quitting and the tobacco related health inequities affecting African-Americans, the FDA had not taken substantive action. Under the Obama Administration, the FDA in 2009 banned most flavored cigarettes, but chose not to ban menthol cigarettes.

Reynolds American Inc. (RAI), which maintains an interest in the Newport Brand, though British American Tobacco now owns Newport, is funding community forums in African-American churches and communities across the country to confuse our community and defuse tobacco control efforts to protect our children.

WHY IS MENTHOL SO BAD FOR US?

Menthol is the tool, the mechanism, and the trigger that gets tobacco into Black neighborhoods. Furthermore, menthol has very specific sensory effects on the smoker. It also makes cell membranes more “permeable” (i.e., opens up) to nicotine and other harmful substances in tobacco. Because menthol is associated with many over the counter health products, such as menthol cough drops and mentholated rubs, many consumers believe menthol must be ok. Menthol, “a little something something” that is stealing our money – African-Americans spend $3.3 billion a year on tobacco products.

HOW ARE TOBACCO COMPANIES TARGETING BLACK PEOPLE?

The Tobacco companies began targeting Black people in the 1970s. When the 1964 Surgeon’s General Report came out, smoking rates began to drop. Smoking rates continue to decline, but among African-Americans this decline is much slower. As the sales of cigarettes are also declining, the sales of menthol cigarettes is rising. Who is smoking menthol? Black folks. Where are they purchasing their cigarettes? In the Black inner-city communities.

This was recognized by tobacco companies, including Lorillard, which during the 1970s was manufacturing a small, pretty unknown brand called Newport. Lorillard knew that if it was going to “survive” in a market dominated by Kool and Salem menthol cigarettes, it was going to have to compete with these brands where these brands were popular – “the black inner city neighborhood.”

The use of menthol cigarettes grew among African-American smokers from 5% in 1953, to 14% in 1968, tripling to 44% in 1976, then doubling again to the current rates of 85%.

[Tobacco companies] would ride around in vans with our music blasting, while all along passing out free cigarettes. Big Tobacco used our “cool culture” to make it seem like we had to smoke their products if we were to be perceived by our peers as being cool.

Stanford University has a sizeable collection of tobacco ads that for years were placed in our magazines, such as Ebony, Jet, and Essence, to lure us into thinking that something so deadly was “cool.” I don’t think it was a mere coincidence that one of the top-selling menthol brands was named “Kool.” But now the major menthol brand is Newport. In fact, it’s all about Newport. Kool and Salem are no longer players in the menthol market.

WHAT’S YOUR STANCE ON LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA?

The will of the people and the ongoing interaction between advocates and opponents will ultimately decide what the outcome will be.  My focus is to stay on the issue of the problem of menthol cigarettes and its deadly effects.  As a doctor, I would caution everyone to think about the impact of smoke on the lungs and body.  Does a medicinal benefit of any product outweigh its counterproductive effects?  It’s important to evaluate what we take into our bodies.

I would encourage people reading this to visit he website of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco. It contains links to smoking cessation programs.  Know, if you smoke menthol cigarettes, it’s not just a matter of your will; it’s a matter of biology. It’s that you have a strong opponent, the combination of menthol and nicotine, hurdled at you by the strong giant arm of billion dollar tobacco companies. You’ve got a determined army against you.

Dr. Yarger answers your questions below:

Why they have taken the word CIGARETTE off of the NEWPORT and KOOL packages?

I actually didn’t know that! There is always a reason why the industry does what it does. Nothing is done by accident or coincidence when it comes to the tobacco industry. I’ve studied the industry, along with my colleagues, for decades. We understand their behaviors and marketing strategies, and so I can say confidently that the removal of the word cigarette has been done for a marketing reason to keep people smoking.

What about vaping?

Using electronic nicotine devices, such as electronic or e-cigarettes (often referred to as  “vaping”) is just another effective marketing tool of the industry to get and keep people addicted to nicotine. It is falsely promoted as an alternative (or “lesser of two evils”) to smoking combustible tobacco products, such as cigarettes. Use of these vaping products is growing among our kids.

The 7,700+ flavors suggest these products are for kids, since such flavors are candy and fruit flavors and other flavors such as “Chicken and Waffles” suggest a targeting of certain populations, such as African Americans.These flavors as best were originally approved as food additives and never intended to be something that we would inhaled into our lungs.

How about hookah?? Isn’t it nicotine free?

Most hookah does contain nicotine. Unfortunately, hookah is becoming increasingly popular among our young Black youth, gaining popularity especially among students attending HBCUs. So, many families are sending their young people to these institutions unaware that their child is likely to be introduced to smoking via seductive hookah lounges.

So menthol is the real gateway drug. What is it exactly?

Yes, menthol is the gateway to smoking for the majority of all kids. It can come naturally from th mint plant or be synthetically made. What is important to know about menthol is that it is not merely an ingredient in the tobacco industry’s “taste recipe.” Menthol has an intimate relationship with nicotine, affecting the delivery of nicotine and making nicotine more addictive. Menthol also acts as a local anesthetic and pain-killing properties, as it “reduces the intensity of tobacco pain-suggestive sensations in the mouth, throat, and nose.”

What about Black & Mild cigars? What are their effects?

Smoking Black and Mild cigars can lead to four types of cancer that affect the larynx (voice box), mouth, lung/bronchus, and esophagus. Males, especially African-American males are more likely to smoke cigars (though there is an increase in the use of cigars among African American young women).

Please note that when people talk about “cigars,” they could be talking about “little cigars” which look and smoke like cigarettes, or “cigarillos,” which are “Black and Milds” and other similar tobacco products that come with a “tip” and are generally flavored, too.

Are cigars worse than cigarettes?

Not sure what is meant by “worse.” More addictive? More harmful? More deadly? More available in your community? More likely to end up in the pockets of your friends, who might share with you? Cigars, like cigarettes, will kill you when used as intended. People get very ill and debilitated from smoking and this reduced quality of life can last for years, making it very difficult to live a fulfilling and productive life.

What is the best way to quit smoking if you can’t do it cold turkey?

Here is the response I gave to a cancer survivor who has started smoking again. I think it is appropriate to share here:

I know it must be difficult to continue such an addictive behavior when you know better. I have shared with Black smokers a sampling of tobacco documents that reveal how the tobacco industry has specifically targeted the black community with their seductive and misleading marketing ads.

I have found that presenting evidence of how the industry has focused on an entire community, gaining entrée into our communities often by our own black leaders, is enough to get smokers mad and angry enough to consider their relationship with tobacco. Reaching out to support groups and quitlines should also be considered. We tend to smoke because we are stressed and that smoking is what we do to deal with our stress.

I encourage you to also seek out other ways to manage and reduce our stress. Find something else to do instead of picking up a tobacco product to “de-stress.” It will take time to change your behavior, but you have to start and just keep trying. Every attempt you make to quit, will get you closer to quitting.

What is the harm in chewing tobacco? Is there similar risk for cancer?

With the recent death of Tony Gwynn, a major baseball league player, we are reminded how chewing tobacco can lead to cancer then death.Tony Gwynn was a beloved Baseball Hall of Famer who died in 2014 at the age of 54 years old from salivary gland cancer. His family filed a wrongful death suit against U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company who has since responded by saying the dangers of their product were “open and obvious” and that Gwynn was properly warned. Chewing tobacco is so harmful that the state of California has banned its use at major league and state owned baseball stadiums.

If I quit smoking what are the percentages of reduction from reducing cancer?

20 minutes after quitting your heart rate drops back down to normal. In just 2 weeks to 3 months your heart attack risk begins to drop, and your lung function begins to improve. In a year, your risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker. And your heart keeps on getting healthier.

Most everyone knows smoking increases your chances of lung cancer. But smoking also increases your risk for cancer of the stomach, mouth, throat, kidney, cervix, pancreas and bladder. 10 years after quitting your lung cancer death rate is about half that of a smoker’s. Your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney, and pancreas decreases. Get help to quit.

Can you explain the obsession young black males have with cigar tobacco and marijuana?

I have watched with horror as our young men have embraced and succumbed to “blunts,” which initially started from the practice of gutting a small cigar/cigarillo and packing it with marijuana.This “blunting” practice was fueled by hip hop artist/music videos and has resulted in our young men getting hooked on nicotine as a byproduct of smoking blunts. Our young men are our under tremendous stress and the use of marijuana to “chill out” is unhealthy/unproductive; the use of blunts is deadly.

One piece of important information for black people to know is that nicotine and other harmful substances from tobacco (such as the cancer causing carcinogens) are stored in tissues containing melanin. Melanin is the substance that gives color to our skin, hair, and eyes; but it is also contained throughout our body, including our brain. The tobacco industry has known since the 1950s that nicotine accumulates in melanin-containing tissues.

Valerie B. Yerger, ND is a licensed naturopathic doctor and an Associate Professor in Health Policy at the University of California, San Francisco. The overarching goal of Dr. Yerger’s work is to frame the disproportionate burden of tobacco among marginalized communities as a social justice issue and to inform public health policies so that they also effectively reach these communities. 

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