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Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition Works To Ban Menthol Cigarettes

Tobacco companies have historically placed larger amounts of advertising for menthol products in Black communities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [Chaikom / Shutterstock]
Tobacco companies have historically placed larger amounts of advertising for menthol products in Black communities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [Chaikom / Shutterstock]

Ideastream’s health team is focusing on how racism and health inequities contribute to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area. As government and health agencies have declared racism is a public health crisis, Ideastream will share stories that will help us all better ​understand the intersection between race and health.

Health officials have known for years that menthol cigarettes are dangerous, but are often marketed as less harsh than other cigarettes.

A local coalition of health groups is now focusing on getting them banned outright in Cuyahoga County.

Officials from the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition said in a meeting on Monday, they are especially concerned about menthol advertising that is often targeted at youth and the Black community.

Although Black Americans smoke fewer cigarettes than white Americans, they are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over 7 out of 10 Black children who smoke use menthol cigarettes, according to the CDC.

Kenneth Ray, a senior program manager at The Center for Black Health and Equity, partially led the meeting Monday, where he reviewed some of their goals in championing efforts to put an end to menthol cigarettes in Cuyahoga County. 

“We do not want young people or Black people to be incarcerated for using menthol flavored products,” Ray said. “It would be the vendors that sell tobacco products that would be the target of enforcement.”

The group is still in the early stages of planning and looking for lawmakers to partner with them and champion legislation to ban menthol products. 

Federally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in April that it would also work to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes and cigars.

“With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock in a statement. 

Members of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition are hopeful that they will see changes after the FDA’s announcement, but they are concerned that it might slow local progress if leaders are waiting on the federal government to act. 

“The FDA announcement was a major opportunity that provided some education around the country,” Ray said. “We need to take the opportunity to build on top of that communication.” 

Smoking, particularly menthol cigarettes, is an example of health disparities in the Black community. 

Tobacco companies have aggressively targeted African Americans and young consumers, resulting in Black people being more exposed to cigarette advertising than white people, according to the CDC.

The CDC also cites research showing menthol cigarettes might be more addicting and more harmful, because the menthol makes it easier to inhale the cigarette smoke. 

Smoking also made it more likely a person might have a severe reaction to COVID-19, a virus that also disproportionately impacted the Black community. 

“I almost died from COVID because of bronchitis that I got from my grandfather being a chronic smoker,” said Yvonka Hall, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition.

The group has advocated for COVID-19 relief funds to go toward addressing some of these health disparities in their African American Rescue Plan. 

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158