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Menthol Cigarettes Apparently Too Damn Tasty

There’s a really interesting profile of Tavis Smiley in today’s N.Y. Times. (FWIW, Levitt and I were on his talk show back in July.) Smiley is perhaps best known these days for putting together The Covenant With Black America, a collection of essays about education, health care, crime, finance, and so on. The implicit point is that black America still trails white America by too wide a margin in too many of these categories. (The young Harvard economist Roland Fryer also studies what he calls “black underachievement,” and has also been on Smiley’s show.)

We touched on these subjects, albeit glancingly, in Freakonomics. The most detailed discussion of the gap between blacks and whites concerned first names. We also discussed the difference in black and white TV viewing habits (which Levitt touched upon here just the other day), as well as the fact that blacks and whites have hugely different preferences when it comes to smoking cigarettes: blacks, for instances, heavily prefer menthol to non-menthol cigarettes.

On average, blacks smoke less than whites. But blacks suffer a higher rate of smoking-related illnesses. Why is this so?

That was the question asked by Mark Pletcher, an epidemiologist at UCSF. And the answer, it seems, has a lot to do with that preference for menthol. It doesn’t appear that menthol cigarettes are more harmful than non-menthol cigarettes. But, as Pletcher and his colleagues describe in this new paper, it does seem that menthol flavoring makes cigarettes more addictive — harder to quit and more tempting to return to if you do manage to quit.

Here’s a writeup on the Pletcher research; and here’s a Nicotine & Tobacco Research paper by Charyn Sutton and Robert Robinson on the history of menthol cigarettes, which argues that blacks are not the only smokers to whom menthol cigarettes have been marketed over the years, and that the marketing messages of menthol are: “healthy/medicinal; fresh/refreshing/cool/clean/crisp; and youthfulness/silliness and fun.” Here’s another interesting nugget:

Menthol cigarettes were patented in the United States in 1925 by Lloyd ”Spud” Hughes (Borio, 2001). Tobacco companies, utilizing medicinal themes, advertised and promoted menthol brands as less irritating and suitable for sore throats due to colds (Wood, 1959). From 1933 until the early 1950s, most menthol cigarettes were smoked on an occasional basis by individuals who regularly smoked nonmenthol brands (R. J. Reynolds, 1984). The transition of menthol cigarettes from their specialty status to the mainstream began in 1956, when the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced Salem, a longer, filter-tipped menthol cigarette (Borio, 2001). Prior to the entry of Salem, sales of menthol cigarettes represented approximately 3% of the overall cigarette market, with 80% of menthol tobacco sales going to a single brand, Kool (Levy & Tindall, 1984). Within its first nine months of sales, Salem became a formidable rival for Kool, amassing nearly half of the menthol market and 3.1% of the total cigarette market, compared with 3.2% for Kool (R. J. Reynolds, 1977).