To the editor: Only a truly bleak satirist could dream up a scheme as cynical as the tobacco industry hiring Black civil-rights advocates to help sell products that kill Black people. And with this repulsive twist: using George Floyd and Eric Garner to falsely suggest that cigarettes – particularly menthols – go well with anti-racism and Black Lives Matter.
That’s deep, in-the-gutter evil. But it’s real.
As The Times’ investigation reveals, the industry has put Black leaders on its payroll for years to block efforts to keep menthol cigarettes out of Black neighborhoods. They help to push the lie that menthol bans are motivated by racism and pose a police danger for young Black smokers.
Making menthols the favorite among African American smokers is one of Big Tobacco’s oldest and greatest marketing triumphs. Easier to smoke and very hard to quit, menthols are a main reason that tobacco-related illnesses kill a disproportionately high number of Black Americans.
It is not lost on many anti-smoking advocates that addiction is akin to enslavement – that African Americans long ago went from picking tobacco to smoking and dying from it.
Your article could have mentioned one more bitter dimension to this story. Everyone who was moved to grief and action by the shocking murders of Floyd and Garner remembers their dying words: “I can’t breathe!” Now think of the many African Americans, sickened to death by their addiction to menthol cigarettes or felled by the coronavirus because of smoking-related respiratory problems, who died with those very words on their lips.
That is the tobacco industry’s murderous gift to us, with help from its many shills in the Black community.
Delmonte Jefferson, Durham, NC
Catherine Saucedo, San Francisco
The writers are, respectively, executive director of the Center for Black Health and Equity, and deputy director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at UC San Francisco.
To the editor: Thank you for the fascinating reporting on the proposed ban on menthol cigarettes. I wonder where we can find racial justice here.
We can allow Black (and any other) smokers to choose to purchase menthol cancer sticks. That leads to unequal health outcomes across races. Or we can paternalistically override the smokers’ choices because the whole enterprise, with capitalist advertising that addicts and sickens the marginalized to line the pockets of businessmen, is corrupt. Then we might start to close the cancer rate gap between white and Black.
But the logic of seeking racial justice will never end. There will always be disparities in health outcomes between groups. Legislating to flatten these disparities can only end in a government micromanagement of all our lives.
I had no idea that menthol cigarettes were such an issue before reading this article. I support continuing to sell them, even with all the downsides.
John Faucher, Oak Park
To the editor: The fact that tobacco products, responsible for more than 480,000 deaths annually in the US, can be sold legally at all is proof that the Food and Drug Administration is not concerned with protecting consumers.
Bethia Sheean-Wallace, Fullerton