Sunday, June 5, 2022

As FDA moves to ban menthol cigarettes, Enquirer reveals how cigarette makers targeted Blacks in Cincinnati area and Knoxville

Kool's 1960s look
Cigarette makers targeted African Americans in Cincinnati and Knoxville as they pushed menthol brands 50 years ago, The Cincinnati Enquirer revealed Sunday in a story prompted by the Food and Drug Administration's move last month to ban menthol cigarettes, the choice of most Black smokers.

The phenomenon began "after a threat of regulation from the federal government caused tobacco companies to pull out aggressive youth-oriented marketing campaigns," the Enquirer's Brooks Sutherland reports. "The companies shifted to focus to another population. The new targets would become impoverished young Black males in urban cities."

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which now has the bestselling menthol cigarette brand, Newport, targeted cities with new marketing and advertising approaches, including a new brand called Mr. Menthol "to compete with Kool, the dominant brand of menthol cigarettes at the time," Sutherland reports. The test markets were Cincinnati and Knoxville.

Kool, then owned by Louisville's now-defunct Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., "began to focus on popular culture, particularly music, for its advertising," Sutherland reports. In 1975, it started the Kool Jazz Festival in Cincinnati and 11 other cities, with "iconic artists such as the O’Jays, the Isley Brothers (Lincoln Heights’ own), Harold Melvin, the Ohio Players and B.B. King in its first year."

Don Williams (Photo by Mark
Cesare, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
“I went down there and got me a couple packs; I started out smoking Kools,” Don Williams of Maysville told Sutherland. “They had the brand everywhere. They were giving out packs of cigarettes. People would come in, they’d give them a pack and if you don’t smoke, then you don’t take it.”

Williams added, “It got a lot of Black people to smoke.” The festival became the Cincinnati Music Festival in 1986.

Dr. O’dell Owens, interim Cincinnati health commissioner and former Hamilton County coroner, recalled "how smoking was much more than a habit to young Black males, particularly because of advertising and the coordination between tobacco companies and popular culture," Sutherland writes, quoting him: “When the guys would light up their cigarettes, it wasn’t just lighting a cigarette, it was how you did it,” he said. “You had to light your cigarette with style. . . . It was an event to light a cigarette, and so people said ‘Man, that’s cool.’ And young kids wanted to smoke.”

The FDA banned flavors in cigarettes in 2009, except menthols; their heavy use by Blacks has made such a move politically fraught. But the FDA's move "has been praised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People," Sutherland notes. "According to an Interact for Health adult smoking survey, around 68% of Black smokers in the Cincinnati region smoke menthol cigarettes."

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