By Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr.
Every day I see young people in my West Baltimore community walking into gas stations and corner stores to buy menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products.
They think it’s cool to smoke menthol cigarettes or other products like flavored cigars, because these products have a sweet taste that cools the throat and masks tobacco’s harshness, making it easier for them to consume. But the menthol flavor is a gateway to a dangerous addiction that is incredibly difficult to break and will follow them for years.
Menthol cigarettes can sentence young people to a lifetime of disease and despair. That’s why I’ve been fighting so hard to get these products off the market, and that’s why I’m in full support of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
When I was young, smoking menthol cigarettes was seen as hip. Characters on TV and in the movies always had cigarettes and looked great smoking them. If someone like Sammy Davis Jr. was smoking, we figured it was okay for us to do it too.
Young people today aren’t exposed to as many of these images as I was, but they’re still getting the message that smoking menthol cigarettes is cool—a message that’s been perpetuated by the tobacco industry.
For decades Big Tobacco has sought to hook African Americans, in particular, through its insidious and greedy advertising. Over the years, the industry spent huge sums in our communities on billboards, magazines and store ads, music events, and even free samples. Even today, menthol cigarettes continue to be more widely available, more heavily advertised and priced cheaper in Black communities.
I still see ads for menthol cigarettes plastered all over gas stations and convenience stores in our neighborhoods—the places where our kids go. The marketing often touts cheap prices, which make menthol cigarettes all the more alluring.
These tactics have led to generations of addiction. I remember a gentleman in my congregation who had numerous respiratory illnesses, and he still could not shake the habit. Even on his deathbed, he couldn’t stop smoking.
The FDA has found that menthol cigarettes are easier for kids to start, more addictive, and harder for smokers to quit. Largely because of menthol cigarettes, Black smokers die at higher rates of tobacco-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke, while lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the Black community.
Simply put, a ban on menthol cigarettes will save lives—as many as 650,000 lives altogether over the next 40 years, including 238,000 Black lives, according to studies cited by the FDA. Prohibiting menthol cigarettes will move us along a path toward greater health in our communities and help close the health disparities that continue to plague us.
Even with data this overwhelming, there are those who oppose a menthol cigarette ban, saying it will bring even more racial profiling to our community.
Don’t be fooled by this argument – it’s a red herring and Big Tobacco’s dollars at work. The same tobacco companies that have been targeting Black communities for decades are now preying on our fears about excessive policing.
Yes, ending law enforcement abuses is critical to the health and safety of our neighborhoods, but let’s be clear: The FDA ban will apply to manufacturers and retailers; the FDA has stated that it cannot and will not make it illegal for individuals to possess or use any tobacco products.
The fact is, menthol cigarettes disproportionately hurt Black people. The FDA’s proposed ban gives us the chance to start healing this hurt and move forward. Showing young people, through our actions and words, that nothing good comes of long-term smoking, that menthol products are not cool or culturally acceptable, we can help them lead healthier lives, now and in the future.
Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., is pastor emeritus of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore. The Reverend Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr. was called to Union Baptist Church as Assistant Pastor in 2004, and elevated to the position of Pastor of this historic “Servant Church” from 2007 to 2021. Throughout the years, he prepared himself academically and spiritually for God’s people. He has earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the North Carolina College of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the United Theological Seminary.