Tobacco Marketing Makes Health Inequality Worse

Tobacco use is one of the biggest threats to health in the Black community, including here in Colorado. In fact, tobacco-related diseases like heart disease, cancer and stroke are some of the leading causes of death among African Americans1, who have higher rates of death and illness from smoking-related diseases than many other racial and ethnic groups2

This health disparity didn’t happen by accident. Tobacco companies have targeted the Black community for decades. That’s why groups like the NAACP, the Association of Black Cardiologists, and the National Black Nurses Association are supporting policies to reverse the influence of Big Tobacco on Black families and youth.

What's The Matter With Menthol?

In the 1920s the tobacco industry first added a chemical compound called menthol to cigarettes. It made smoking feel easier on your lungs — and harder to quit. Starting around the 1950s, Big Tobacco pushed menthol cigarettes in the Black community with strategically appealing, yet deceptive advertising.

The massive marketing push involved advertising in magazines popular with Black readers, in stores in Black neighborhoods, and at events that draw Black audiences. These ads featured Black celebrities and culture at a time when many big brands would not include African Americans in media campaigns. The industry also donated money to historically Black colleges and universities, Black officials and organizations.

The menthol push on the Black community was so effective that to this day nearly nine out of ten Black adults who smoke use menthol cigarettes.3

The chemicals in menthol suppress coughing and make smoking feel less harsh, but in reality, menthol tobacco products are not safer.

Big Tobacco made menthol the cigarette of choice for African Americans with decades of targeted advertising.

Cleveland Piggott, MD, MPH shares how hard it is to quit tobacco. Hear his perspective on the negative impacts of the tobacco industry targeting the Black community:

Support For Quitting

Some good news today is that many African Americans are trying to quit tobacco: more African Americans who smoke report attempting to quit within the past year than the general population. For most people, it takes several attempts in order to quit for good, but success is worth it, no matter how many tries it takes.

Quitting tobacco is the fastest way to improve your health. On average, people who use tobacco live ten years less than people who have never used tobacco. But people see their health improve immediately after quitting. Over time, those who quit see their health — and life expectancy — rebound to match people who never smoked.

Ready to quit? The Colorado QuitLine can give you tools to help you quit, like nicotine medications, coaching and community help. The program is anonymous, free and doesn’t require a prescription or doctor’s referral.

Secondhand Smoke Impacts

When you quit tobacco, you also protect the people you love from secondhand smoke.

Studies show that, nationally, African Americans are more exposed to secondhand smoke.  In Colorado, Black adults are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes than White and Hispanic adults.4 Even for those who don’t use tobacco, secondhand smoke is dangerous — it increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke and lung cancer. Infants and children are especially affected by secondhand smoke. Infants are more likely to be born underweight, and children get sick more often and are more likely to have asthma attacks and ear infections.5

We can protect ourselves, our families and our communities by advocating for smoke-free laws in the places we live and work.


Help make your community smoke-free. Check out these initiatives to create smoke-free policies in workplaces, communities and housing. 

A lot of organizations are pulling back the curtain on how the tobacco industry has hurt the Black community. To learn more about the history and impact of tobacco on the African American community, check out the following resources:

1. Heron M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2018. National Vital Statistics Reports; vol 70 no 4. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health
Statistics. 2021. DOI: cdc:104186.
4. 2018 Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillence System