Outside a Strawberry Mansion corner store last week, two friends smoked and weighed their options as federal authorities sought to ban their cigarettes of choice.
“I guess I’d have no choice but to quit,” said Jason Lawson, 44, after finishing a menthol cigarette, a Newport.
His friend Kareem Coates wasn’t as keen to end a more than two-decade habit.
“I’m going to go buy a big bag of menthol tobacco,” he said, “and roll my own.”
The Food and Drug Administration announced last month it seeks to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. About 85% of America’s Black smokers, like Lawson and Coates, smoke menthols — which account for a third of all cigarette sales nationally.
Supporters of the ban say it would help ease health inequities. Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of smoking among big American cities and the fifth-highest rate of lung cancer among Pennsylvania’s counties, according to the National Cancer Institute. Annually, tobacco use causes about 3,700 deaths in the city, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health reports — more Philadelphians than killed in either 2020 or 2021 by COVID-19.
The ban would not affect e-cigarettes or the tobacco used in hookahs.
Philadelphia has fought similar battles against tobacco and lost. Four years ago, the city tried banning flavored tobacco products, but a court decided the city wrongly preempted state law. The federal ban would go further than the city’s, which didn’t address menthol cigarettes.
“We in the little city of Philadelphia were way out of our class fighting big tobacco in Pennsylvania and in the country,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who introduced the legislation. “Now that it is being proposed from top down, that might be the proper weight class.”
The hazards of menthols
Menthol makes smoking a more pleasant experience: The mint-flavored compound numbs airways, reducing the harshness of the smoke.
“That’s a hell of a change,” said Coates, asked whether he would switch to a non-menthol brand. “They don’t even have the same taste.”
The soothing effect encourages people to inhale more deeply, boosting the likelihood of addiction, said Ryan Coffman, tobacco policy and control program manager with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Menthol also plays a role in enhancing the effect of nicotine on the brain. These cigarettes, like the flavored cigars the FDA is also seeking to ban, also make tobacco more appealing to new customers.
“The data that’s available shows that youth who initiate with a menthol product are more likely to become daily and regular tobacco users,” Coffman said.
Elliott Harris, 70, discovered menthols when he was 18 and serving in the Navy. Boot camp included breaks from duty called “smoke and Coke,” he remembered, when the men could have a cigarette and a Coca-Cola.
Coates, 44, recalled his first cigarette 21 years ago. It was not a menthol, and he hated it.
“My first cigarette came from a white boy,” he remembered. “Once I started smoking with the Black brothers, it was menthol.”
Floyd Jackson, sitting in a motorized scooter alongside Coates and Lawson, said it’s hard to find smokers in the predominantly Black Strawberry Mansion section who didn’t prefer menthols.
“Everyone around here smokes Newports,” he said. “If they ain’t smoking Newports they’re smoking Kools.”
Jackson, 65, quit smoking 21 years ago when his daughter was born. His sister, a Philadelphia police officer who could go through two packs of cigarettes just getting her hair done, died from the habit.
“Cancer does vicious stuff to you,” he said.
Coates, who was recently diagnosed with COPD, lost his brother to lung cancer. Lawson recalled that of his grandmother’s 16 children, only two are still alive. The others died of cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that smoking is regularly responsible for the three most common causes of death among Black Americans — heart disease, cancer, and strokes. Pennsylvania has the country’s 20th-highest rate of lung cancer but is ranked seventh among Black Americans, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Black customers have been the target of marketing for menthols since the 1960s, with efforts including free cigarettes in their communities, aggressive ad campaigns in Black publications, and billboards in Black neighborhoods. The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. deployed that playbook in Philadelphia in 1990 while test-marketing a menthol brand called Uptown, according to the city health department’s Smoke Free Philadelphia initiative. Community backlash ended the campaign.
The proposed menthol ban has raised questions of discrimination. In a letter to the White House last month, the Rev. Al Sharpton said the proposal would “exacerbate existing, simmering issues around racial profiling, discrimination, and policing.” The NAACP backs the ban, though.
“The tobacco industry is on a narrow quest for profit,” the organization said in a news release, “and they have been killing us along the way.”
Almost half of Latino smokers smoke menthols, 41% of Asian smokers, and 30% of whites, the FDA reports.
Fewer Philadelphians smoke than a decade ago, but rates among men and women still remain higher in the city than national averages. Smoking is also more common among poorer Philadelphians. Tobacco use was the most common cause of preventable death in Philadelphia in 2018, former city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told City Council that year.
An estimated 17% of Pennsylvanians and 13% of New Jersey residents are smokers, according to the CDC.
The appeal of flavored cigars
Cigarettes with flavors other than menthol were banned nationwide in 2009, but that market migrated to cigars with fruit or candy flavors, health experts say. Now, about half a million American youth use flavored cigars, the FDA reports.
The protection of children was the impetus for the city’s 2018 effort to ban flavored cigars, which came in packages with the same cartoonish design as candy, Council’s Jones said, and were sold near sweets in some stores. In 2018, Farley said the percent of city teenagers who smoked cigars increased from 6% to 10.5% from 2011 to 2015, and nearly tripled among Black teens.
“A lot of the flavors that are marketed that are highly appealing toward youth suddenly appeared in the little cigar market,” said Andrew Strasser, a psychiatry professor at University of Pennsylvania and director of the Perelman School of Medicine’s biobehavioral smoking laboratory.
Jones, whose father died of lung cancer, recalled fierce pushback from both the tobacco industry and store owners.
“The lobbyists descended upon us,” he said, and they managed to delay the bill a year before its passage in 2019. The court ruling came shortly after. Opposition is expected to be strong to the FDA action as well, with lobbyists and small business owners already reaching out to the White House, the Associated Press reported.
In Pennsylvania, the tobacco business is booming, with farmers growing 23 million to 25 million pounds of the crop annually, said Greg Seamster, vice president of sales at Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co. Some of the state’s varieties are popular as cigar wrappers, and farmers can gross $8,000 to $10,000 per acre on tobacco sales.
“It could impact Pennsylvania in a very big, negative way,” he said of the ban.
His company is a member of the Cigar Association of America, which will lobby against the rule during a public comment period through July 5. The ban likely won’t go into effect this year and could be delayed years by lawsuits.
“My feeling has always been we live in the United States of America, where we have the right to choose what we put in our bodies,” Seamster said. He challenged the notion that flavored cigars were designed to appeal to children. “I’ve always had that perspective where sometimes a government can be a little overreaching and is telling us what they think we have to use.”
Some city store owners are bracing for a loss in sales. Luisa Carbral, a clerk at Ridge Super Market on Ridge Avenue, said her store would miss the sale of up to 30 packs of menthol cigarettes each day. At Sai Gas Station, also on Ridge Avenue, co-owner Abdul Omer said he was more concerned about the loss of flavored tobacco sales than menthol cigarettes.
“If they get cut, that’s going to affect my business a lot,” he said.
He also doubted people who want to smoke would give up the habit if their preferred brands disappear.
The FDA’s ban proposal cites a model that found eliminating menthol cigarettes would reduce smoking nationwide by 15% in 40 years, preventing up to 654,000 deaths. Menthol smokers have lower rates of quitting cigarettes than people who smoked non-menthol brands, Strasser said.
Harris, the Navy veteran, said he might quit if menthols were banned. But he also recalled when he was in the Navy and couldn’t find his favored brands.
“I know when I was in the service and I couldn’t get menthol,” he said, “I smoked Marlboros.”