What's So Special About Menthol? Smokers in Detroit talk about why menthol cigarettes are so popular in the black community. Then, Donna Christensen, head of the Congressional Black Caucus's Health Task Force, discusses why she is pushing to get stronger language into pending tobacco legislation.
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What's So Special About Menthol?

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What's So Special About Menthol?

What's So Special About Menthol?

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, turning to private firefighters to fight fires in California.

COHEN: First, though, a fierce debate over menthol cigarettes. Tobacco legislation currently before the House would ban cigarettes flavored like candy, spices or fruit but not menthol-flavored ones. And that's angering some black lawmakers.

BRAND: That's because 75 percent of black smokers choose menthols - brands like Newport, Salem, Kool. No one's sure why menthol cigarettes are so popular with African-Americans, but here are some thoughts from smokers Sofia Wyatt(ph), Kenneth Pledger(ph), Renee Smith(ph) and Rachel Waller(ph) in Detroit.

Ms. SOFIA WYATT: I've seen people like - I'd offer a person a cigarette and they'd say, if it's not Newport, I don't want it. Seriously.

Mr. KENNETH PLEDGER: When I'm drinking and somebody see you with a menthol or do you want a regular cigarette, I probably would take the menthol, if that what it takes. And I don't know what's in the cigarette itself that makes you want to crave that taste, but...

Mr. RENEE SMITH: I don't - I mean, a pack of cigarettes will last me a week and a half, so maybe I need to quit. But I don't know, I like the Newports because you get Newport rewards.

Ms. RACHEL WALLER: Well, if you're finding that more people are addicted to a certain brand, then there has to be a reason behind it.

COHEN: Tobacco companies want to make sure those smokers keep buying menthols. Menthols account for 28 percent of the 70 billion dollar American cigarette industry. But the Congressional Black Caucus, or CBC, says an exemption from menthol in the new tobacco legislation isn't fair. They're calling for tougher menthol restrictions in the bill. Congressional delegate Donna Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands heads the health task force for the CBC.

Representative DONNA CHRISTENSEN (Democrat, U.S. Virgin Islands; Head of Congressional Black Caucus Health Task Force): We are looking at the language in the bill already that calls for research on the connection between menthol and African-Americans and higher rates of lung cancer. There's also limitations on advertising, both on the pack and out in the open, and against targeting individuals, groups or children, especially. I guess the ideal thing would be an outright ban, and that was proposed in a committee as an amendment. It was offered as an amendment. It was voted down. You know, we're looking at any way that we can get to a scientific basis for banning because the bill already gives the secretary and the FDA the authority to ban menthol or any other flavoring or additives in cigarettes, once the science is definitive.

COHEN: Menthol cigarettes are a very significant part of the tobacco industry, I think approximately 25 percent. And a lot of people have said if you address menthol cigarettes in this legislation, the whole thing could fall apart, and that would be a really big loss. What's your response?

Representative CHRISTENSEN: I agree with that. I agree with that. I think the most important thing is to make this giant first step in authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to finally regulate tobacco. This has been a long battle - it's been longer than 10 years. The tobacco companies have fought it. Many tobacco companies are continuing to fight even what we have today.

COHEN: But if it comes down to it, would you be willing to sacrifice and take menthol out of the equation if that's the only way to get the rest of it passed?

Representative CHRISTENSEN: We're working together as the CBC to come up with the strongest language possible that will not kill the bill.

COHEN: The company that makes Newport menthol cigarettes, it's a very popular brand, has been urging its customers to call on Congress and to...

Representative CHRISTENSEN: And they have been calling.

COHEN: Yeah. They've been calling you.

Representative CHRISTENSEN: Yes.

COHEN: What have people been saying?

Representative CHRISTENSEN: Well, they're advising against a ban on menthol or any stronger language around menthol.

COHEN: What would you say to African-American constituents who say, look, this is my decision, and I don't want the government interfering with menthol cigarettes? What would your response be?

Representative CHRISTENSEN: I think, you know, I'm a health care provider. I've been a public health administrator. And we have banned other things that have proven to be injurious to health. And so I think the health of the public comes first. But we have to remember that African-Americans are exposed, and other people of color and poor people are exposed to a number of environmental hazards. I'm an anti-smoking advocate, period. So menthol is just a part of it, but I would be happy to have everyone stop smoking.

COHEN: Donna M. Christensen is the Democratic Congresswoman from the Virgin Islands. We've been speaking to her about recent tobacco legislation. Thank you very much.

Representative CHRISTENSEN: Thank you very much, Alex.

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