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Lo-res_1106869442-SEven among the long and complex history of questionably ethical marketing tactics adopted by the tobacco industry, the promotion of menthol cigarettes to African American consumers stands out as particularly egregious. Menthol additives make cigarette smoke feel less harsh, such that it encourages new smokers to take up the habit. It also makes the cigarettes even more addictive than conventional versions, meaning that people who have adopted the habit have a harder time quitting.

In an unethical strategic effort, tobacco companies historically have explicitly targeted Black consumers with marketing to convince them to adopt menthol cigarettes, and today, an estimated 85 percent of African American smokers consume these flavored versions. Noting this discriminatory and damaging practice, several citizens’ rights groups came together to petition for a ban, an initiative that a U.S. district court upheld. The ruling has brought the issue to the forefront, though it has no enforcement power.

But in response, the Biden Administration has announced that it will call for a ban on menthol cigarettes, as well as those flavored with other additives and mass-produced flavored cigars and cigarillos. In calling for these bans, the Administration cited statistics that show that despite lower levels of smoking, relative to other population segments, Black smokers are more likely to die of tobacco-related causes, such as strokes and heart attacks. The call also resonates with state-level efforts in California and Massachusetts to ban menthol cigarettes.

Opponents include some predictable actors, but also some perhaps surprising ones. That is, tobacco industry lobbyists call the proposed ban ineffective and overreaching. But in addition, the ACLU has announced its opposition to the ban, concerned that criminalizing a product that is predominantly embraced by Black consumers will lead to unfair penalties on minority communities.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is a ban on menthol and other flavored cigarettes an ethical move? Apply the ethical decision making framework from Chapter 4 to justify your answer.

Source: Sheila Kaplan, “Biden Administration Plans to Propose Banning Menthol Cigarettes,” The New York Times, April 28, 2021; Michael Collins, “Report: Biden Administration Expected to Push for Menthol Cigarette Ban,” USA Today, April 28, 2021