Black History Month presents an opportunity for us to celebrate the contributions of Black Americans. Every February, we also reflect on the generations of Africans Americans who fought to achieve freedom and citizenship. That struggle for equality continues today.
In Minnesota and throughout the nation, racism is a public health crisis that permeates nearly every aspect of life for Black families. Worse educational outcomes, poverty, environmental injustice and poor health are just a few consequences of institutional and structural racism.
There are massive, societal-level problems that we must continue to address — and that work may take decades. Thankfully, there are also common-sense solutions Minnesota can implement now to improve the lives of Black residents.
Ending the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products is one step we should take to immediately address the health crisis of racism. This Black History Month, let's support Black lives and Black lungs by clearing the market of deadly menthol and flavored tobacco products.
For decades, Big Tobacco has marketed menthol cigarettes to African Americans, advertising in Black publications and neighborhoods, sponsoring concerts and even driving around Black neighborhoods handing out free menthol cigarettes. Big Tobacco's strategy worked. Today 85% of Black smokers prefer menthols, compared to 29% of white smokers.
As a result of these efforts, some people think menthol tobacco is a Black thing. Menthol is not a Black thing, it's a tobacco industry marketing thing.
Menthol gives a cooling sensation and masks tobacco's harshness, making it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The federal government has studied the harms of menthol to Black Americans, but has failed to act. In fact, the federal government in 2009 took all flavored cigarettes off the marketplace except menthol. That policy failure has cost thousands of Black lives.
As Black health professionals in Minneapolis, we see firsthand the devastating health effects of smoking menthol tobacco products. We also have suffered immense personal loss from menthol tobacco products. Between the two of us, we have lost a father and a grandfather due to smoking-related lung cancer and heart disease, and many other family members are living with a long addiction to menthol cigarettes and suffer from various smoking-related diseases.
The pandemic adds urgency to our efforts since current and former smokers are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. To make matters worse, communities targeted by the tobacco industry, including Black and Indigenous Minnesotans, are some of the hardest hit by COVID-19.
Removing flavored tobacco products from the marketplace is an important step to improve lung health and encourage adults to quit. Fortunately, all Minnesota residents can access free quitting help through 1-800-QUIT-NOW and QuitPartnerMN.com.
Minnesota is ready to join leading states that have ended the sale of menthol and flavored tobacco products. Many Minnesota communities are leading the way. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and nine other municipalities have limited where menthol products can be sold.
There is strong, bipartisan support for building a state free of tobacco addiction, especially among our young people. In addition to harming the Black community, menthol and other flavored products are driving the tobacco epidemic among young people, which wiped out decades of progress to build a generation free from tobacco addiction.
This policy is overwhelmingly popular in the community, too. Nearly three-quarters of Minnesotans and 77% of African Americans polled support ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products.
In late December, the Minnesota House Select Committee on Racial Justice recommended that Minnesota remove menthol and all flavored tobacco products from the marketplace to promote racial justice. And just a couple weeks ago, Attorney General Keith Ellison joined 22 other attorneys general in calling on the Food and Drug Administration to end the sale of menthol cigarettes nationwide.
There is significant momentum, but we know the tobacco industry will fight tooth and nail to protect its profits. Let's make this clear, though: We won't stop until we no longer have to attend funerals for our parents, grandparents, uncles and friends lost to smoking. Please join the movement to put the health of kids, Black Minnesotans and all residents ahead of Big Tobacco's profits.
LaTrisha Vetaw is director of health policy and advocacy at Northpoint Health and Wellness Center and co-chair of the Menthol Coalition. Zeke McKinney is faculty physician, HealthPartners Occupational and Environmental Medicine.