The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The long road to banning menthol cigarettes

Cigarettes for sale in a smoke shop on April 28 in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Though it is heartening that Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the NAACP, has praised the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes “as a huge win for equity, justice, and public health concerns” [“FDA moves to outlaw menthol cigarettes,” front page, April 29], we should not forget that it took the NAACP decades to come to this position. At the association’s annual Spingarn Medal awards banquet in 1990, which was exclusively sponsored by Philip Morris, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, longtime executive director of the NAACP, lauded the company “as one of our greatest contributors across the years … a pioneer in hiring Blacks for nontraditional jobs in industry … a company that cares … and a model of corporate social responsibility.”

In 1986, I described the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing of menthol brands to African Americans on billboards and in the print media and its financial support of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Newspaper Publishers Association and other cultural and civic organizations. One byproduct of this largesse was the long opposition by most Black lawmakers to restricting smoking in public places — legislation that tobacco companies compared not very subtly to laws designed to bring back segregation.

The Post's View: Menthol cigarettes must be banned now

It is little remembered why the bill to give the FDA regulatory control over tobacco products, signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama, did not ban menthol, despite the well-known targeting of menthol brands to Black communities. The reason is that an unlikely proponent of the bill threatened to withdraw support if a ban on menthol were included: Philip Morris.

Alan Blum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The writer is director of the University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society.