Cigarette use can vary widely among different populations – not just the amount smoked but the type of cigarette. You hear a lot about tobacco companies targeting young people, but if you pay close attention, you might have noticed that some ads are directed at the African-American community. Menthol cigarettes, in particular, are heavily marketed toward black people, and have been for decades. Why is that the case?
Dr. Phillip Gardiner, a public health activist and researchers, wrote a paper called The African Americanization of menthol cigarette use in the United States, in which he states that the tobacco industry “African Americanized” menthol cigarettes by tailoring images and messages to the black community in the 1960s. The Kool brand, in particular, was marketed as being for young, hip black people. The tobacco industry even donated money to African American organizations, including civil rights groups, in an attempt to gain more customers. Menthol cigarettes were also advertised as a safer alternative at the time. It was in 1964 that the U.S. Surgeon General released a report linking smoking with lung cancer, and many smokers were looking for alternative cigarettes. According to Gardiner, the tobacco companies were also cashing in on the general desire among black people to have culturally specific products (hair oil, for instance).
The manufacturers of Kool launched a television ad campaign in the mid-60s, aimed at working and lower-middle-class people. They also began advertising in magazines and hired Elston Howard, a black baseball player who was with the New York Yankees in the 1950s and 1960s, to be a spokesperson for Kool menthol cigarettes. His picture ran in the magazine Ebony, which is aimed at the African American market. The advertising paid off, as the percentage of black Americans smoking Kool menthols jumped from 14 percent in 1968 to 38 percent in 1976.
The ads for Kool also portrayed it as new and rebellious, which appealed to many of the young people involved in the civil rights movement. Think about how today you see ads for alcohol directed at young men, practically shouting, “Drink this and you’ll be cool! Everyone will want to be you and you’ll get the hot girl!” Back then, it was ambition, daring, and forward thinking that they were selling to people involved with the emerging black power movement.
Tobacco companies are still trying to market menthols to black Americans today, with mixed success. In 1990, R. J. Reynolds began marketing Uptown cigarettes, which failed to get off the ground when a coalition of tobacco control activists accused the manufacturers of targeting the black community with a deadly product. Something similar happened in 1995 when an independent company introduced a brand of cigarettes called X, which was meant to invoke Malcolm X. It was eventually abandoned after much community resistance.
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