The tobacco industry has a long history of targeting Black Americans with menthol cigarette
advertisements, and as a result, nearly 85% of Black smokers use the mint-flavored tobacco.
Following years of delay, the Food
and Drug Administration proposed a nationwide ban on the sale and production of menthol cigarettes last month. As the effort to remove menthol smokes from the market gained traction in recent years, the industry sided with Black-led organizations and Black lawmakers. And new documents shared with Stardia provide a behind-the-scenes look at how one tobacco giant is piling on.
In early February, Altria
Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA, scheduled a meeting with the Institute for the Black World 21st Century (IBW), a Baltimore-based organization that works to empower Black communities. Greg Akili, an IBW board member, told Stardia that the organization reluctantly accepted the meeting at the urging of a former board member, a decision he and others regretted.
According to Akili, Altria spent the meeting touting its criminal justice work and historical efforts to support civil rights
, but there was no specific request or offer of support for the group, whose work focuses primarily on ending the drug war and securing reparations
for slave descendants.
“Many of us saw this as an attempt to curry favor with Black people
,” Akili said, “but what they didn’t mention was that over 45,000 Black people will die from smoking
Akili claims he brought up this fact, as well as Philip Morris International's aggressive cigarette advertising overseas, including near schools
in Africa, but received little response. (Philip Morris International and Philip Morris USA have been separate entities since PMI spun off from Altria in 2008. PMI now sells Marlboro and other Philip Morris brands globally, while PMUSA sells them domestically.)
Akili, a long-time civil rights activist in Los Angeles
, called the meeting "offensive," "disappointing," "unprincipled," and "unproductive" because it did not focus on the IBW's priority issues, and he left early to avoid saying anything rude.
“They’re doing this to say they’re talking to Black organizations,” Akili explained, calling it a “classic dog-and-pony show.”
According to Akili, Altria only briefly discussed its opposition to a ban on menthol and other flavored tobacco products. However, in a follow-up email two weeks later, Angela Arboleda, senior director of federal government affairs at Altria, thanked IBW board members for taking the time to meet and provided materials about Altria's "criminal justice reform principles" and a February 2020 letter from groups inc.
“We are concerned that banning flavors in tobacco products and imposing mandatory minimums will provide law enforcement with yet another reason to harass and stop people of color,” Arboleda wrote to IBW board members following the meeting. “We believe that there are better ways to address nicotine addiction
than punishing people with prison.”
The FDA's proposed ban, announced last month, is not intended to target and arrest smokers; rather, it would regulate manufacturers, retailers, and distributors, not individual consumers. The Biden administration
has stated that the move will reduce overall cigarette use and help address tobacco-related health disparities in communities of color.
According to Akili, Altria is simply “feeding into Black people’s fears.”
An Altria spokesman, George Parnam, confirmed that the company's representatives met with the group.
“We engage with many different stakeholders to share public policy positions on issues relevant to our companies, as well as to understand concerns and answer questions,” he said, adding that “our goal is to move adult smokers away from cigarettes and toward potentially less harmful alternatives, but prohibition does not work.”
He went on to say that “criminalizing menthol could have serious unintended consequences” because the “illicit sale and distribution of tobacco products is a crime
” in all 50 states.
“A far better approach would be to support the development of a market of FDA-approved smoke-free alternatives that are appealing to adult smokers,” he added.
Parnam did not respond to Stardia's inquiry about the outcome of its meeting with IBW.
Don Rojas, an IBW board member and spokesman, did not respond to Stardia's requests for comment.
As the tobacco industry fights tighter regulations, it is also rebranding itself as the solution to the public health
crisis it created, marketing “smoke-free,” “better,” and “less-risky” alternatives to traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.
Philip Morris International's IQOS, a device that looks similar to an e-cigarette and heats leaf tobacco without burning it, allowing it to deliver nicotine in aerosol form rather than smoke, is one of those alternatives. Altria sells the IQOS in the United States
through an exclusive licensing agreement with Philip Morris International.
Stopping the proposed menthol ban would, of course, allow Altria to continue selling flavored cigarettes, which account for roughly a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States.
and the National Action Network oppose a menthol ban, citing concerns that it will create an underground market for menthol products and increase interactions between police
and people of color. Opponents frequently invoke the case of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of a police officer in 2014 after being stopped for allegedly selling ille
“We do not believe that children
should be imprisoned or given a ticket for selling menthol,” Sharpton told The Washington Post
last month, adding, “You're going to give the police another reason to engage our people?”
Organizations such as the NAACP
and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, on the other hand, argue that a ban is required to address a social justice issue that disproportionately harms minority groups. Despite smoking fewer cigarettes than other racial and ethnic groups, African Americans
are more likely to die of smoking-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“The tobacco industry is on a narrow quest for profit, and they have been killing us along the way,” the NAACP said in response to the proposed FDA ban. “It is past time we prioritize the health and well-being of African Americans.”
For Akili, the issue is very personal. When he was a teenager, his mother died after falling asleep on a couch with a lit cigarette, and by the time he got to her and pulled her out of the house
, it was too late. She died in large part from inhaling smoke from the smoldering furniture, he claims.
That traumatic experience did not deter Akili from smoking, and he eventually quit in the 1980s
. He has spent years fighting Big Tobacco
as a project coordinator at Corporate Accountability International, a corporate watchdog organization.
“The impact of tobacco in my personal life has certainly drawn me to it,” he explained, adding that opposing the menthol ban is a continuation of that struggle.
Along with decades of aggressive marketing that included “larger amounts of advertising in African American publications,” Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have donated millions to civil rights organizations like the ACLU and NAACP, as well as sponsored education
and cultural events in the African American community, according to public health activist Dr. Phillip Gardiner’s research
Altria's appeal to IBW, according to Akili, is part of the industry's strategy of using any and all tactics to burnish its image while protecting its bottom line.
“They’re taking advantage of the climate
of demand for social justice to say, ‘We’re with you,’” he explained.