Outside a Strawberry Mansion convenience store last week, two friends smoked and weighed their options as federal authorities sought to ban the cigarettes of their choice.
“I guess I would have no choice but to quit,” Jason Lawson, 44, said after finishing a menthol cigarette, a Newport.
His friend Kareem Coates wasn’t so eager to end a habit that had been around for more than two decades.
“I’m going to go buy a big bag of menthol tobacco,” he said, “and roll my own.”
The Food and Drug Administration announced last month that it was seeking to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. About 85% of black American smokers, like Lawson and Coates, smoke menthols — which account for a third of all cigarette sales nationwide.
Proponents of the ban say it would help alleviate health inequalities. Philadelphia has one of the highest smoking rates among major US cities and the fifth highest lung cancer rate among counties in Pennsylvania, according to the National Cancer Institute. Tobacco use causes about 3,700 deaths in the city each year, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health reports — more Philadelphians than died in 2020 or 2021 from COVID-19.
The ban would not affect e-cigarettes or tobacco used in hookahs.
Philadelphia fought similar battles against tobacco and lost. Four years ago, the city attempted to ban flavored tobacco products, but a court ruled the city wrongly preempted state law. The federal ban would go further than the city’s ban, which did not include menthol cigarettes.
“We in small-town Philadelphia were far from our class in fighting big tobacco in Pennsylvania and across the country,” said councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who introduced the legislation. “Now that it’s offered top to bottom, it might be the right weight class.”
Menthol makes the smoking experience more enjoyable: the mint flavored compound numbs the airways, reducing the harshness of the smoke.
“It’s a hell of a change,” said Coates, who asked if he would switch to a menthol-free brand. “They don’t even taste the same.”
The soothing effect encourages people to inhale more deeply, which increases the risk of addiction, said Ryan Coffman, manager of tobacco control policy and program at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Menthol also plays a role in enhancing the effect of nicotine on the brain. These cigarettes, like the flavored cigars that the FDA is also seeking to ban, also make tobacco more appealing to new customers.
“Available data shows that young people who start with a menthol product are more likely to become daily and regular smokers,” Coffman said.
READ MORE: Plan to ban menthol cigarettes triggers last-minute lobbying
Elliott Harris, 70, discovered menthols when he was 18 and serving in the US Navy. Training camp included breaks called “smoke and coke,” he recalls, when the men could have a cigarette and a Coke.
Coates, 44, remembers his first cigarette 21 years ago. It wasn’t a menthol, and he hated it.
“My first cigarette came from a white boy,” he recalls. “Once I started smoking with the Black brothers, it was menthol.”
Floyd Jackson, sitting in a motorized scooter alongside Coates and Lawson, said it was hard to find smokers in the predominantly Black Strawberry Mansion who didn’t prefer menthols.
“Everyone here smokes Newport,” he said. “If they don’t smoke Newports, they smoke Kools.”
Jackson, 65, quit smoking when her 21-year-old daughter was born. His sister, a Philadelphia police officer who could swallow two packs of cigarettes just by getting her hair done, died.
“Cancer does vicious things to you,” he said.
Coates, who was recently diagnosed with COPD, lost his brother to lung cancer. Lawson recalled that of his grandmother’s 16 children, only two are still alive. The others died of cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that smoking is consistently responsible for the three most common causes of death among Black Americans – heart disease, cancer and stroke. Pennsylvania has the 20th highest lung cancer rate in the nation, but ranks seventh among black Americans, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Black customers have been the target of menthol marketing since the 1960s, with efforts including free cigarettes in their communities, aggressive advertising campaigns in black publications, and billboards in black neighborhoods. The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company rolled out this manual in Philadelphia in 1990 while testing the marketing of a brand of menthol called Uptown, according to the city health department’s Smoke Free Philadelphia initiative. Community backlash brought the campaign to an end.
The proposed ban on menthol has raised issues of discrimination. In a letter to the White House last month, the Reverend Al Sharpton said the proposal would “exacerbate existing and latent issues regarding racial profiling, discrimination and policing.” The NAACP supports the ban, however.
“The tobacco industry is on a narrow quest for profit,” the organization said in a press release, “and they killed us along the way.”
Nearly half of Latino smokers smoke menthols, 41% of Asian smokers and 30% of whites, reports the FDA.
Fewer Philadelphians smoke than a decade ago, but rates among men and women still remain higher in the city than national averages. Smoking is also more common among poorer Philadelphians. Smoking was the most common cause of preventable death in Philadelphia in 2018, former city health commissioner Thomas Farley told the city council that year.
An estimated 17% of Pennsylvanians and 13% of New Jersey residents are smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cigarettes with flavors other than menthol were banned nationwide in 2009, but that market has shifted to fruit or candy flavored cigars, according to health experts. Today, about half a million young Americans use flavored cigars, reports the FDA.
Child protections were behind the city’s 2018 effort to ban flavored cigars, which came in packages with the same cartoonish design as candy, Jones said, and were sold near candy in some stores. In 2018, Farley said the percentage of city teens who smoke cigars increased from 6% to 10.5% from 2011 to 2015, and nearly tripled among black teens.
“A lot of marketed flavors that are very appealing to young people have suddenly appeared on the little cigar market,” said Andrew Strasser, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Perelman School of Medicine’s Biobehavioral Smoking Laboratory. .
Jones, whose father died of lung cancer, recalled fierce reactions from the tobacco industry and store owners.
“The lobbyists descended on us,” he said, and they managed to delay the bill for a year before it was passed in 2019. The court ruling came shortly after. Opposition is also expected to be strong to the FDA action, with lobbyists and small business owners already reaching out to the White House, the Associated Press reported.
In Pennsylvania, the tobacco business is booming, with farmers growing 23 million to 25 million pounds of crop annually, said Greg Seamster, vice president of sales at Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Company. Some of the state’s varieties are popular as cigar wrappers, and farmers can fetch between $8,000 and $10,000 per acre on tobacco sales.
“It could have a very significant negative impact on Pennsylvania,” he said of the ban.
READ MORE: As farmers flock to hemp, the Amish and “English” in Pennsylvania foresee real profits
His company is a member of the Cigar Association of America, which will lobby against the rule during a public comment period through July 5. The ban likely won’t go into effect this year and could be delayed for years by lawsuits.
“My feeling has always been that we live in the United States of America where we have the right to choose what we put in our bodies,” Seamster said. He challenged the idea that flavored cigars were designed to appeal to children. “I’ve always had this perspective where sometimes a government can go a little too far and tell us what they think we need to use.”
Some store owners in the city are bracing for a loss in sales. Luisa Carbral, a clerk at the Ridge Super Market on Ridge Avenue, said her store would miss the sale of up to 30 packs of menthol cigarettes each day. At the Sai gas station, also on Ridge Ave., co-owner Abdul Omer said he was more concerned about losing sales of flavored tobacco than menthol cigarettes.
“If they are cut, it will affect my business a lot,” he said.
He also doubted that people who want to smoke would give up the habit if their favorite brands disappeared.
The FDA’s proposed ban cites a model that eliminating menthol cigarettes would reduce smoking nationwide by 15% over 40 years, averting up to 654,000 deaths. Menthol smokers have lower quit rates than people who smoke non-menthol brands, Strasser said.
Harris, the Navy veteran, said he might quit if menthols were banned. But he also recalled when he was in the Navy and he couldn’t find his favorite brands.
“I know when I was on the ward and couldn’t get menthol,” he said, “I was smoking Marlboros.”