Growing up in New York in the 1970s, both my parents were doctors and both of my parents smoked. I remember the ads as a kid for “Joe Cool” and menthol cigarettes in popular magazines like Ebony and Essence and on billboards all over our community.
My mother started smoking with menthol cigarettes, which led to more than 60 years of nicotine addiction. Even though my parents smoked, I knew that cigarettes were not healthy from an early age and I was willing to do whatever I could to express my concern – sometimes even a little creative.
Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley [ Provided ]
On a snowy night when I was 5 years old, I found my mom’s last few cigarettes, crushed them and flushed them down the toilet. Needless to say, I was promptly packed to go to the supermarket to get her another package. It was then that I realized how addictive those cigarettes were. Who goes to the supermarket in the middle of a snowstorm? It was clear to me that her desires were stronger than anything common sense would stop.
It’s been more than a decade since federal law banned flavored cigarettes in the United States, with one notable exception: menthol. The taste my mom was addicted to from the start.
Like my parents, I also became a doctor and opted for pediatrics. Now I live and work in Florida and have seen the impact of nicotine addiction on my own young patients.
Within days, the federal government has the power to stop menthol cigarettes from being sold to protect the black communities most affected by addiction. Ninety percent of black smokers are menthol smokers, due to the aggressive marketing tactics of the tobacco industry.
Among Florida high school youth, 4.8 percent reported smoking cigarettes in 2019. And in our state, 4,100 children under 18 become new daily smokers every year. As pediatricians, we know that tobacco use is a “childhood disease” because it almost always starts in adolescence.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to make a decision before the end of this month on whether to ban menthol cigarettes once and for all in the United States, a move that would have a major impact on health from Black communities. Some states have chosen to ban flavors like menthol on their own, but Florida isn’t one of them.
It’s no secret that the tobacco industry is targeting ad campaigns to keep black kids from holding on to their deadly and addictive menthol products. In fact, there are more tobacco ads in black communities than in other communities. Therefore, it’s not surprising that menthol products are disproportionately used in communities of color – while nearly 90 percent of black smokers use menthol cigarettes, only 29 percent of white smokers do.
Menthol provides a cooling effect, reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke and suppresses coughing, making it easier for the novice smoker to become addicted to the nicotine rush. Of the black 12 to 17 year olds who had ever used a tobacco product, 71.9 percent smoked menthol cigarettes. I see the impact of Big Tobacco’s marketing tactics too often as these kids are my patients. As with my own family, for many black families in Florida, both parents and children are affected.
I am convinced that no policy would do more to address the health inequalities in morbidity and mortality resulting from the use of tobacco products than to eliminate menthol as a flavoring agent in cigarettes. One study found that banning menthol tobacco products would save 300,000 lives, including 100,000 black lives.
It is estimated that 270,000 children under the age of 18 still living in Florida will eventually die prematurely from smoking. By banning menthol, the FDA has the ability not only to protect Florida children from the tobacco industry’s marketing programs, but also to ensure that kids everywhere can grow up without nicotine addiction. I will never forget that snowy night shop, and I hope other black families will never have to face the power of nicotine addiction like my family did. Now is the time to act.
Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley is a Florida pediatrician, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Florida Chapter, and a member of the AAP Committee on Federal Government Affairs.