Reckoning with the History of Racial Marketing of Menthol Cigarettes

In Pushing Cool, Dr. Keith Wailoo presents a sixty-year history of menthol cigarettes becoming a racialized product. Wailoo has written a number of essential books on race, racism, and health since the 1990s, including Pain: A Political History and How Cancer Crossed the Color Line. This is the first of Wailoo’s books to deal with the racial marketing of tobacco products, although Wailoo’s attention to inequalities in the historical sources is consistent throughout his works. For Pushing Cool, Wailoo principally relied on internal tobacco company documents of the twentieth century as his source material. The book is also filled with several surprising images of cigarette advertisements from the 1920s to the 1990s (primarily from the collection of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising). Each piece of evidence shared by Wailoo reveals the racist intent and practices of tobacco companies and the way that they attempted to make menthol cigarettes seem appealing through wellness discourses and appeals to scientific legitimacy.

Initially, menthol was used for a variety of therapeutic purposes, such as a treatment for colds, before becoming an ingredient in certain lines of tobacco products. Like many other industries, tobacco companies bolstered their health claims with scientific credibility. One such instance was when Carl Spier, an advertising agent working for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, met with a prominent physiologist at Yale, Howard Haggard, in the 1930s. Spier wanted to use scientific studies to mitigate health concerns of menthol tobacco products, but Haggard was adamant about creating a clear barrier between his studies and tobacco advertising as Haggard was committed to the idea of a value-neutral science. Physiological testing by Haggard revealed the health risks of smoking menthol cigarettes; however, Brown & Williamson reframed Haggard’s results to show that their products did not have long-lasting effects and did not accumulate in the body like other substances. In sum, despite the use of menthol for medical purposes, menthol, as Wailoo reminds us, is merely a trick on the senses.

Three men lift a wounded soldier onto a stretcher
Willis’s cigarette card, (Wellcome Library)

Besides producing menthol cigarettes, tobacco companies also began adding filters to cigarettes as another way to try quelling the growing anxiety about the risk of cancer from smoking. While menthol cigarettes were less popular compared to other cigarette lines, tobacco companies saw the product as another opportunity to sell to smokers who had more anxieties about their health than the average smoker. Of course, as more evidence accumulated to show that tobacco was not medicinal, marketers reframed filtered and menthol cigarette products not as medicine, but as a kind of therapeutic smoke. For instance, marketers harped on the reduction of perceived “heat-originated discomfort” from smoking menthols compared to other tobacco products. Marketers further attempted to convince others that the taste of menthols was an appealing quality and was not a barrier to enjoying menthol products. In time, the taste of menthol cigarettes was portrayed as a more sophisticated quality over other cigarettes.

As many advertisement companies were popping up all over Madison Avenue, these companies began recruiting experts in psychology and social science from universities. The Psychological Corporation, Depth Research Laboratories, and Motivational Programmers Inc. are all examples of research consultancy firms who played a role in researching and constructing consumer preferences for tobacco companies. Perhaps the most notable of these advertising consultants was Ernest Dichter, who argued that consumer choices were largely unconscious and socially acceptable means of self-making (i.e., identity construction) and rebellion against mainstream ideas and values. Despite the advertising consultants’ success, as evidenced by increased product sales, many critics became concerned that their efforts would target white children, and so instead the tobacco companies turned their attention to Black consumers. Ultimately, the in-depth research conducted by these firms led to a great deal of surveillance and interpretation of Black communities for the purpose of manipulation and profit for tobacco companies.

Further marketing research claimed that menthol could act as a status symbol for young rebellious urban Black men (as propagated by Kool advertisements) or as a symbol of sophistication for middle class suburban Black women (as represented in Salem advertisements), at least for some years in the 1970s and 1980s. This geographic targeting of advertisements included a campaign with buses used to commute to work from Black suburban neighborhoods to urban areas. Menthol cigarette advertisements featuring Black people were shown inside buses, but there were no menthol ads featuring Black people on the outside of the bus if the bus line passed through white neighborhoods.

As part of tobacco companies’ strategy to increase sales to Black communities, Black leaders were offered free cigarette products and other resources by tobacco companies in exchange for promoting menthols to their community. Tobacco companies also began funding Black arts and community events, such as jazz festivals. While they were hiring more Black employees and including more Black people in advertisements as well as supporting Black artists, tobacco companies often reproduced racist stereotypes and caricatures in private meetings (as archival documents reveal) and sold their products to Black consumers while hiding the true harm of menthol cigarettes. Even though the tobacco companies attempted to maintain a seemingly collaborative relationship with Black communities, not everyone was convinced that the tobacco companies had Black Americans’ best interests in mind.

During the 1980s and 1990s, a new movement emerged with a goal to ban menthol cigarettes. For instance, community activists began whitewashing and blackwashing billboards to cover up cigarette advertisements. One such activist of this time, known as Mandrake, was adamantly against tobacco companies targeting Black neighborhoods and was outspoken about the selling out of the community by Black leaders and organizations. Around this time, there was a debate between Louis Wade Sullivan, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under George H. W. Bush, and Benjamin Hooks, from NAACP, around the issue of banning menthol cigarettes. While Sullivan supported such a ban, Hooks claimed that paternalism and racism were the true impetus behind the bans. Similar concerns about Black autonomy and consumer bans continue today.

Although Pushing Cool is about the way that white-led companies exploited Black leaders, influencers, and consumers, the story has many affinities with other institutional forms of racism. Wailoo puts this history into contemporary context by analogy to the police murders of Eric Garner and George Floyd, as well as COVID-19. In the book’s introduction, Wailoo tells us that “the suffocation of Black lives has been happening not only by police chokeholds, but also by menthol smoking.” Moreover, the recent FDA ban on menthol tobacco products further makes this book a timely read. In the end, Wailoo’s powerful text reminds us that business and medical ethics do not exist outside of histories of racial exploitation and oppression.

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