How Big Tobacco made menthol racial

The author of "Pushing Cool" on the hidden story of cigarette marketing

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 29, 2021 4:01PM (EDT)

 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images))
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images))

Keith Wailoo opens his engrossing new book with a vintage Dave Chapelle sketch, and a line from an imagined quiz show called "I Know Black People." A contestant just has to answer a question, "Why do Black people love Menthols so much?" She gets it right with her response — "I don't know."

It's a clever setup for the author's social — and often and personal — answer to that question, a history of the evolution of targeted tobacco marketing, and how the industry strategically created a demand and then peddled their product to Black America. Its a story with roots that stretch back a century, through the political movements of the sixties through the death of Eric Garner and right up to the present day — just this year, the Biden administration sparked controversy by announcing a proposed ban on the flavoring in cigarettes.

Salon spoke recently to Wailoo,a Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, about his new book "Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette."

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You write about and explore from a public health perspective and from a race perspective. But what was it that made you want to draw on what you saw and observed growing up and expand it into this really unique investigation?

The things that you encounter when you're a young person, they're very informative, and they stay with you. It's really sometimes only with the passage of time that you can think back, maybe sometimes with nostalgia and longing. For me, it was the difference between going to elementary and middle school in the Bronx and Queens, and then in high school, moving out to a suburban town in New Jersey. It's reflecting on what that experience was like as an academic who is interested in issues how health is shaped by one's environment. It's that reflecting on your childhood and realizing that the messaging was starkly different in terms of the environment that one navigated every day.

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Now as a person who works on the history of race and health, I've long studied this through the lens of things like how cancer trends change over the course of the 20th century. Those changes in cancer trends are the byproduct of those issues, like where you live and smoking trends. There's a hidden history there.

I didn't know the way that the menthol cigarette was developed first as a kind of healthy and soothing alternative. Can you talk a little bit about that and about the early genesis of the menthol cigarette in America?

If you are familiar with today's menthol discussion, you think it's a cigarette brand that has been racially marked and the targeted racial marketing has defined its market. But if you're really trying to figure out the full history, you realize that it has its origins in this experience that is woven into lots of different products early in the 20th century — lozenges, ointments. The public comes to an awareness of menthol as therapy, as a product that purports — it doesn't really do this — to break up congestion and open the airways. The industry realizes the growth of the smoking market in the 1920s after World War I has produced a huge growth in smokers, but it's also produced something called smokers' throat, the almost omnipresent cough. And a small company and then another larger company discovered that by taking this substance, menthol, and weaving it into a tobacco product, you can actually sell the idea that a menthol smoke is a way of calming smokers' throat.

It has this therapeutic promise. The idea that the menthol market starts with a kind of deceitful idea, that it's therapy, really helps to explain how this niche market emerges as a kind of a solution to the problem of smoking itself.

So even before you get to the kind of racialization of menthol smoking, the industry understood the the social psychology of brand choice, And that menthol had this health promise that even then they knew really it didn't deliver on. Because very early on, the scientists could tell you that menthol is not a decongestant, it doesn't open your airways. What it has is this deceptive sensation. If you've ever eaten a York Peppermint Pattie or sucked on a menthol lozenge, you feel that rush of what seems like cool air sweeping down your nose and your throat. People associate that with the expanding of the airways. It turns out that it's just a trick of how menthol works on the brain, but it was enough to sell these products as therapeutic.

Menthol cigarettes are really a textbook example in the way that you can create a taste for something. You can create a desirability for something that is, I'm going to say, objectively disgusting, to cultivate an addiction.

It speaks to the way in which psychology and psychologists were very, very involved in the idea of acquired tastes or cultivated tastes or manufactured tastes. The advertising industry, which was coming into its own in the 1920s and 1930s, understands that what you're selling is something that needs to intersect with people's identity. You're selling a sense of security. You are taking something, as you say, that's objectively odd. Why would you want this experience? What's interesting about the early Spud cigarette ads is how they decide, rather than sell people on something that you would like them to love at first smoke, teach them how to learn to love it.

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There's a Pavlovian psychology at work here. Dogs don't salivate at the ringing of the bell the first time. You have to teach dogs that the ringing of the bell is associated with food coming. This is very much the kind of Pavlovian psychology that's at work in thinking about markets in this time period, which is that you have to teach people how to associate positive experiences with something that is objectively off putting. That's where the health promise comes in. The idea that you're getting something of value from this experience, and this is what the industry does extraordinarily well.

Then a couple of decades pass. As the generation of smokers starts to age, you have an identity problem for a brand, which is that then it is seen as older and uncool. This is part of where this new targeting comes in, and it becomes something very, very different.

It goes through a couple of really curious shifts. First there is Kool, having been on the market one of the longest times, and has this old, medication association for an earlier generation. Then Salem comes out from RJR in the mid 1950s and goes straight at promising something new to a new generation in an era when people are looking for something "safe." Because it's really not safe.

Into the early 1960s, there's this new tension over the fact that menthols are on the rise, and which of these brands is going to succeed. The really curious thing happens with the makers of Kool in the context of the second Surgeon General's report in early 1964, which creates another, what's called the cancer scare.

On the one hand, the cancer scare creates a lot of pressure from government to reduce youth smoking and to press the industry to not court young smokers as aggressively. It's really at this moment that the makers of Kool make the calculated decision to compensate for those lost markets. You can't do what had been really central in building youthful menthol markets in the early 1960s. That's where they make the decision to aggressively advertise, in the summer of 1964, in Black newspapers around the country. They take the same motifs of upward mobility that had been part of their regular advertising, but they really push it aggressively in the context of the civil rights movement. They make and transform Kool into a product that speaks in many ways to broader ideas about coolness, but also African American consumer trends. It's a calculated risk on their part that works out, and with the endorsement and support of Black periodicals like Ebony magazine, who need the advertising dollars, periodicals.

Kool really recasts itself in this way, very aggressively through Black media. Then as they succeed, and I'm talking about modestly succeeding, what happens in the '60s that's particularly dramatic is other companies move aggressively into the urban inner city marketing of menthol brands along lines of race. In some ways , one company that leads the way, and it becomes a pretty intensive rush at a time when menthol brands are themselves proliferating.

In 1960, you had less than ten menthol brands, and by 1970 you had upwards of thirty menthol brands. So a number of companies are getting into the menthol race and pitching menthols to Black Americans, and pitching that in cities, which are demographically changing with urban migration, white flight, et cetera, et cetera. It's a complicated game that the industry starts playing in the menthol space that leads to the racialization.

Then there's exploitation of that, where then it becomes, we want the "lower income" smokers. And there then becomes a very calculated association with, menthol cigarettes are going to be about drugs, they're going to be about all of these other peripherals that the tobacco industry associates with a particular place and a particular community.

One of the most shocking findings in this book, but also one of the most shocking themes in the history of menthol is the explicitness with which what we call exploitation today is understood in really negative terms. They use the word "exploitation" to talk about exactly this use of Black pride to find markets in cities. One of the shocking documents that I have from St. Louis is from 1967, where a company is explaining to the makers of Camel how you create markets in urban St. Louis by appealing to Black pride, yes, but also appealing to generational pride as in, young people don't want what their parents want.

Then they go deeper and they explain that young Black consumers don't get information from television, don't get information from the president of the board of education. They get information from what are called centers of influence, and that could be barbers or bellhops or bartenders. So you have to identify what are called cell groups, or particular influencers, in the language that we use today and give them free product and have them distribute your product. That way you are cultivating prestige and insider information. These documents, they read like, well, this is what pushing looks like, which is why the book is called "Pushing Cool." They're looking at not just images on billboards, but the structure of communities and how you influence behavior. Company after company is doing this in the 1960s through the 1970s.

On the one hand, if they were studying Black communities in an effort to influence behavior that was health promoting, then you'd admire the detailed analysis of how you shape behaviors. But this was all in service of really selling products that were already still carrying this deceitful health message. They study things like drug use to understand what is the connection between the increasing use of marijuana or harder drugs and menthol use, and maybe that's also our market.

There is a moment where things begin to shift and there becomes a self-awareness and really questioning about what these cigarettes mean to Black American consumers. What happened with Uptown?

Uptown is fascinating story. I should say there's a little bit of a precursor to it because, one of the continuing ironies of the story is whenever there's regulation against the industry to limit its market more broadly, that is often followed by this intensive effort to cultivate even more directly Black inner city smokers. The reason why the Uptown story needs a little bit of a setup is that the banning of cigarette advertising on the television and radio led the industry to redouble its efforts with things like urban billboards and posters on public transportation to move even more aggressively than it ever had into the urban space.At the same time, the industry is continuing to lose a broad market.

Cigarette consumption is declining nationwide, partly because of the things like the limiting of advertising, the limiting of things like indoor smoking. The public health infrastructure is growing to limit smoking. And what Uptown represents is an effort to say, well, look, rather than doing this under the radar signaling to Black smokers, let's just come right out and say, we are making a Black themed menthol cigarette. They really do believe that this is going to be a winning argument. The analogy they make is with Nike. They say, well, if Nike can advertise sneakers directly for Black youths, why can't we advertise a cigarette for Blacks? And it really runs into a buzzsaw of criticism.

Most surprisingly to them is from Louis Sullivan, an African-American physician, who is then the secretary of Health and Human Services under George Herbert Walker Bush. From a Republican administration, but a physician, and a Black man, he's dedicated his life to kind of improving the health of African Americans, he goes right at the industry in a scathing fashion. In some ways, that plus the reaction of pastors and activists, turns the tables on the industry. Already there was a kind of increasing dismay and anger about the prevalence of billboards in cities, that cities had become a kind of a place that was dominated by ad for liquor and cigarettes.

You might say that the Uptown story became a catalyst for a public health activism that took aim at targeted marketing, that took aim at billboards and their prevalence in Black communities, and really did end up reshaping the landscape both physically, but also reshaping the landscape of public health activism to take on this targeted marketing. Uptown started off as this RJR thinking that they were just going to be frank, and it turns out that that frank honesty ended up being revealing in a way that ultimately helped to energize the forces of public health.

This takes us right to the near present, and how when you have something that is identified culturally so strongly, things get really sticky and complicated. That brings us to when Bill de Blasio and Al Sharpton wind up on two very different sides of the aisle about what to do about menthol cigarettes. I want to ask about that debate, and what that says about how do we move forward with being sensitive, being advocates for public health, but also understanding those cultural implications?

In some ways we're living today with the consequences of a decision that Congress did not make in 2008-2009, when in this really dramatic moment in the history of tobacco, the US Congress passed a law that finally gave the FDA jurisdiction over tobacco regulation. It's amazing that we had practically an entire century where a leading substance, a leading drug, was not under the jurisdiction of FDA. What Congress did at that moment was also ban flavored cigarettes, or what were called characterizing flavors. That is, things that were obviously used as deceitful enticements, particularly to young people to start smoking. But because of the shrewdness of the industry in supporting African American legislators, the Congressional Black Caucus, and therefore the Democrats, split on the question of whether menthol should be exempted.

Menthol has been existing in this different terrain than other flavored cigarettes. It was exempted, but the FDA was told that it had the jurisdiction to decide. Congress basically punted the question rather than deciding on a ban. The de Blasio-Sharpton discussion is a carryover from this discussion that happened in 2009 and has been riding along for the last decade or so.

Most Black people don't smoke, but of the African Americans who smoke, they overwhelmingly prefer menthol products compared to white people who smoke. The industry has been successful at cultivating the idea that that's not a byproduct of exploitation or targeted marketing or illegitimate shaping of preferences; it's an authentic preference that expresses a Black consumer desire. They have been really successful at selling that message in order to protect their market. It has been a successful argument for many, many years. But it is losing its power. Whereas the NAACP was really on the side of the industry ten or fifteen years ago, they have since flipped and said, no, menthols are just generally bad and ought to be banned. What you have with Al Sharpton is, he's maybe one of the last holdouts among prominent leading African American political figures who is willing to argue for the industry.

The irony is that the argument that he found that carried the day in New York when they were contemplating a ban was not the argument that Black people prefer menthols. It was the argument that was tailored to a Black lives matter moment, which is that Eric Garner was strangled by a police officer for selling loose cigarettes on the corner in Staten island. And that if menthols were banned, it would produce a Black market that would put more young African American men at risk for engaging in illicit illegal activity. That's the kind of the last gasp, to use a smoking metaphor, of the opponents of menthol ban.  

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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