The vast majority of Black smokers smoke menthols. Why? : Code Switch In the U.S., flavored cigarettes have been banned since 2009, with one glaring exception: menthols. That exception was supposed to go away in 2023, but the Biden administration quietly delayed the ban on menthols. Why? Well, an estimated 85 percent of Black smokers smoke menthols — and some (potentially suspect) polls have indicated that a ban on menthols would chill Biden's support among Black people. Of course, it's more complicated than that. The story of menthol cigarettes is tied up in policing, advertising, influencer-culture, and the weaponization of race and gender studies. Oh, and a real-life Black superhero named Mandrake the Magician.

The minty past and cloudy future of menthol cigarettes

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What's good? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.


And I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: All right, Parker, I have a weird question for you.

PARKER: Shoot.

DEMBY: Did you or anyone in your family smoke, ever?

PARKER: I don't smoke. I never have.

DEMBY: Yeah.

PARKER: I - that's not true. I tried once in grad school, and I coughed too hard for that to ever become my personality.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

PARKER: But a lot of my older aunts and uncles were lifetime smokers.

DEMBY: OK. What kind of cigarettes did your aunts and uncles smoke? I'm curious.

PARKER: Mainly Kools...


PARKER: ...But there were a couple of Newports people.

DEMBY: Just as I suspected - menthols, OK.

PARKER: Yeah. Wait, what about you?

DEMBY: I smoked a cigarette one time in my life. I was drunk. It tasted like minty burning. Ugh. But my mom smoked for most of my young life. She quit when I went to college. Shoutout to my moms (ph). But she smoked Benson & Hedges Menthol Lights. I remember that mint green packaging that they used to come in.

PARKER: I mean, that does sound classy. Benson & Hedges - it sounds kind of British...

DEMBY: Yeah.

PARKER: ...Or, like, some '80s cop drama that aired on CBS, like "Cagney & Lacey" or "Jake And The Fatman."

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yes. As somebody who grew up in the '80s, I remember being a little kid and being able to buy her cigarettes from the carryout, like, for her. I was a little kid. I could go to the little cigarette machines with the funky little knobby lever jawns. Oh, my God. What a time. Memory unlocked - dark, dark times.

PARKER: What a chaotic time. But yeah, why do you ask?

DEMBY: OK, so your people smoked menthols. My mom smoked menthols. The overwhelming majority of Black folks who smoke smoke menthols.

PARKER: I mean, my childhood best friend - she told me - still smokes menthols.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

PARKER: So, yeah, that's the stereotype. Black folks love Newports. But the ones I know do love Newports.

DEMBY: Yeah, it's a thing. And it turns out, there's a whole wild, fascinating history that shows how Black folks became menthol smokers. It's a story that involves an actual, real-life self-styled Black superhero/vigilante who made it his mission to free Black America from the thrall of the menthol.

PARKER: Wait, what?


DEMBY: Parker, it's bananas. It's bananas. It's a story, though, that's also about, you know, Black civic leaders and civic institutions, some of which are very beloved, taking money from big tobacco companies. It's also about pioneering ingenious marketing tactics, and, you know, I mean, maybe evil marketing tactics - I don't know - that kind of came to shape the way that so many of us consume all kinds of stuff today, not just cigarettes. And, you know, since it's Black History Month, I was like, OK, let's just get into that history.

But in order to do that, we need to start more recently because - Parker, I don't know if you've been paying attention, but the fact that Black folks really, really go up for menthols is kind of at the center of this really touchy policy fight that's happening in Washington, D.C., right now.

PARKER: OK, so I'm going to disappear for a while. Take it away, Gene.

MARGO SNIPE: It kind of all starts back in the early 2000s, 2009. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act basically bans flavoring in cigarettes.

DEMBY: That voice you're hearing belongs to...

SNIPE: Margo Snipe. I'm the national health reporter at Capital B.

DEMBY: Capital B is a nonprofit news outlet that covers Black communities. And that 2009 law banned flavored cigarettes like apple and cherry and honey, and the ban covered most flavors.

SNIPE: Except menthol cigarettes. So everything we've seen in the more recent years to ban the menthol flavoring is just kind of closing an open loophole on that first act.

DEMBY: The government didn't say exactly why they left that carve-out in the ban for menthols, but, OK, here's what we do know.


DEMBY: Menthols make money. Younger people vape instead of smoking, right? We know that. Fewer people are smoking traditional unflavored cigarettes, but menthols have become a bigger part of the pie when it comes to actual cigarette sales. RJR Reynolds makes Newports. Newports are the No. 1 menthol brand in the U.S., and menthols have grown to half of RJR Reynolds sales in the U.S. now. So it's a product category that Big Tobacco has been doubling down on, and they were not going to let it go quietly. And 2, again, Black folks really love menthols.

SNIPE: So the vast majority of Black smokers are smoking menthol cigarettes.

DEMBY: The Food and Drug Administration puts the number at 85%. Meanwhile, the American Lung Association says that only about 22% of white folks who smoke smoke menthols. Margo said that there's this suspicion among some public health folks that that's part of why they let menthol slide with that ban on flavored cigarettes.

SNIPE: When I talk to advocates, it's the fact that Black smokers are the people who smoke them the most, and so we can let them keep smoking it.

DEMBY: But Margo told me Black folks tend to smoke fewer cigarettes, and they start smoking at a later age than white folks do. And because menthols feel less harsh to smoke, you know, 'cause of that cool minty flavor, you can take deeper drags. That means you get more of the smoke and the nicotine into your lungs, and that makes menthols harder to quit. Margo said that's why the consequences of smoking hit Black folks harder.

SNIPE: They're also more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses, and that's from data from the CDC. But tobacco use also bleeds into heart disease, cancer and stroke, which are the three leading causes of death for Black Americans.

DEMBY: And that's why so many public health advocates have been pushing for the federal government to finally ban menthols the way it did with other flavored cigarettes. The FDA actually proposed a ban on menthols back in 2022. Health advocates were excited. It was supposed to go into effect late last year in 2023. But then the Biden administration quietly delayed that ban from going into effect, or at least they tried to do it quietly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This afternoon, community leaders and public health advocates marched toward the White House and staged a homegoing mock funeral for the 45,000 Black lives lost to tobacco-related illnesses every year.

SNIPE: The White House, the administration has caught some fire for that choice.

DEMBY: Health advocates were stunned. They thought that Biden was playing politics with this. Margo said that some people wondered if maybe Joe Biden's people didn't want to go into an election year banning something that Black folks - who, of course, make up the spine of his base - really liked. And look, I mean, are menthols even, like, a top 20 voting issue for Black folks? I mean, I don't know, but Big Tobacco has the money and the motivation to make it an issue, or at least a talking point. Take this argument. Some civil rights and racial justice activists say banning menthols is just going to give cops another thing they can use as a pretext to stop Black people.

SNIPE: It's a really complicated issue. What unraveled after that proposed ban was not really a battle of, like, what could be good or bad for the community, or best or better. It was, like, a question of the most suitable of two potentially deadly evils. Are we smoking cigarettes which could potentially cause lung cancer and other health complications, or are we further criminalizing Black communities for possessing a product that's now banned?

DEMBY: As it stands right now, it's not clear when this proposed ban will go into effect or if it even will at this point. But Black folks are going to be central to its fate one way or another.

OK, so now for some history - I want to tell you a story about a dude who tried to save Black people from what he saw as the scourge of menthol cigarettes. He even turned himself into something of a real-life Black vigilante superhero like Meteor Man or Luke Cage without the dab. His name was Henry Brown, but to the people in the streets, he was...

JOSH LEVIN: Mandrake the Magician.

DEMBY: I'ma tag in some help to tell the story.

LEVIN: Hit the button that makes me sound smart.

DEMBY: I don't have to do that. You're Josh Levin.

LEVIN: I am the editorial director of the "One Year" and "Slow Burn" podcasts for Slate.

DEMBY: You might remember Josh from the time he was on CODE SWITCH before talking about his book on the original welfare queen, an absolutely bananas story that you should go listen to if you haven't. Anyway, Josh and the folks at "One Year" recently did a whole episode on Henry Brown.

LEVIN: Henry Brown was born in the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s in a Black community. He was in the military, got out, became a court reporter, was civically minded, really cared about his community.

DEMBY: Kind of a dandy, too, right?

LEVIN: Kind of a dandy, too. So in the Army, he got really into skiing and was involved in Black ski clubs, which are a really big deal in Chicago. And it wasn't enough for him just to ski down the mountain. He had to do it in serious style. He wore these long duster coats, you know, these kind of beautiful hats and ensembles, and people would really notice him. He was a guy that liked to be seen and liked to be looked at.

DEMBY: I wouldn't think skiing in a leather duster was very aerodynamic.

LEVIN: You know what? Sometimes when you look good, you ski better. I mean, I don't ski, but...

DEMBY: Anyway, superhero origin story time - one Mother's Day, Henry Brown is driving around Chicago. He's with his girlfriend. They're with their moms. And, you know, Chicago is notoriously very segregated.

LEVIN: And they just watched the landscape change.

DEMBY: On the South side, the Black side, there were ads on billboards for menthol brands like Kools and Newports and Virginia Slims everywhere, images of young fly Black people, you know, getting their lives with cigarettes in their hands, on the sides of buildings, on billboards, on the top of buildings, just everywhere. But on the north side, the white side of town, there was nothing like that. And that pissed Henry off.

LEVIN: He had this kind of belief, based on what he saw just in the urban environment, that people that looked like him, people in communities of color, were being targeted explicitly by tobacco companies. And this was a thing that felt both offensive and, actually, maybe he had the kind of hubris or self-belief to think that he could do something about it.

DEMBY: And so Henry decided to take matters into his own hands. The first thing he did was call up the billboard companies. And obviously the billboard companies were like, hey, man, if you don't stop playing on my damn phone.

LEVIN: And so he's like, all right, well, that didn't work. And so, you know, one of the things that he did next is, all right, I'm going to take my message to my community.


HENRY BROWN: Good morning, Professor, and good morning to the WBON audience. I want to thank WBON for allowing me to come on the air again and talk about this particular matter.

LEVIN: And the way that he did that, the platform that he found, was this Black radio station where this was the kind of thing that people talked about.

DEMBY: So Henry starts calling in all the time, but anonymously. He's calling in, you know, over and over and over again, talking about the dangers of menthol and these cigarettes on Black Chicagoans, talking about how Black folks are being targeted.


BROWN: And we can see how many of these billboards were in our neighborhood. And so the matter of the fact is we have a broad, collective community to fight this problem.

DEMBY: But even if him calling into the radio station was getting people to start to pay attention to his message, the billboards - they were still everywhere. And so Henry decides he needs to change the landscape, literally. And since again, nobody else is going to do it...

LEVIN: What he decided to do was to whitewash them.

DEMBY: And so his idea was to take some paint and a roller...

LEVIN: To get a ladder, to climb up there and to paint over the ads. And what his daughter told me - he didn't paint over the whole thing.

DEMBY: Henry didn't want people to see just, like, a painted white rectangle where the billboard should have been. No. He wanted those images of beautiful Black people smiling, living their lives, clutching their cigarettes - he wanted them to look defaced.

LEVIN: That's the kind of - some of the brilliance here of the strategy. He painted over enough so that if you wandered by, if you're on the bus, if you walk past, you could tell that there was a cigarette ad under there.

DEMBY: Henry and his girlfriend, Gwen, would go around Black Chicago and surreptitiously deface these billboards. And their vandalism, vigilantism, direct action - it started to get people to really pay attention.

LEVIN: Immediately, people started noticing - people in Chicago, journalists, the billboard companies and the tobacco companies. Just like with the radio station, he claimed credit but not under his own name, and that just added to the mystique. The guy who painted over the billboards wasn't Henry Brown, the kind of middle-class, single dad court reporter in Chicago.

DEMBY: No, he was claiming credit under a new name.

LEVIN: It was Mandrake the Magician.

DEMBY: Mandrake the Magician, after this old-timey comic book character from his childhood, and Mandrake's whole thing in the comics was he's making evil disappear. So Henry starts to give interviews to the press dressed in a mask and a top hat. And of course, he keeps calling into that radio show as Mandrake.

LEVIN: The AP interviewed him as Mandrake, the anonymous billboard painter. And anything that's a mystery, anything that you've got, like, a superhero kind of name, it instantly becomes fascinating to everybody.

DEMBY: So some people decided they wanted to get on board, and so they started following Mandrake's example, defacing and painting over the cigarette ads that wallpapered their street corners and billboards. There were protests and rallies and direct actions in inner cities around the country, where people started demanding that these tobacco companies take down these billboards for menthol cigarettes.

Henry Brown died in 1996, and while he's no longer a household name, the burgeoning anti-cigarette movement that he helped catalyze has not been forgotten in his hometown of Chicago. There's a park with a playground and a rec center on the South Side today that bears his name, or his nom de paint, I guess. It's called Mandrake Park.

LEVIN: So many different people were outraged about the same thing at the same time. And he, I think, gave inspiration to people, some of whom just directly followed in his footstep. And it worked. Like, look at, you know, where we live in D.C., Gene. Look anywhere in the U.S., and what don't you see?

DEMBY: You don't see these ads anymore.

LEVIN: No. And, you know, was it because of one person? No. Did one person who was just a guy who, you know, called into a radio station and decided that he needed to do a little bit more - did he play a major role? Yeah, he definitely did.


DEMBY: When we come back, how menthols became the cigarette for Black people.

KEITH WAILOO: The industry was interested in Black masculinity long before Black studies was an academic discipline. But they weren't interested because they were interested in Black communities. They were interested in it because they needed to figure out how to sell cigarettes.

DEMBY: That's coming up. Stay with us.


PARKER: Parker.



DEMBY: So we've been talking about Black people and tobacco, specifically menthol cigarettes, which reminds me of this old Dave Chappelle sketch. It's called "I Know Black People."

PARKER: Gene, like, are we really talking about Dave Chappelle in 2024?

DEMBY: Parker, I'm so sorry. I know. I know.

PARKER: OK. Anyway, yeah, I remember it, sort of. It was like a quiz show, right?


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I know Black people.

DAVE CHAPPELLE: Welcome to the show "I Know Black People."

PARKER: And Chappelle was a host asking folks questions about Black people, and one of those questions was...


CHAPPELLE: Why do Black people love menthols so much?


DEMBY: Yes. And the contestant says...



CHAPPELLE: That is correct.




CHAPPELLE: Nobody knows. Nobody knows for sure 'cause...

DEMBY: Nobody knows. Well, it turns out Chappelle was wrong.

PARKER: Wouldn't be the first time.

DEMBY: (Blowing raspberry) It turns out that, actually, somebody does know.

PARKER: All right. Let's hear it. I'm going to go away again.

WAILOO: My name is Keith Wailoo.

DEMBY: Keith is a historian at Princeton, and he literally wrote the book on how this came to be.

WAILOO: I'm the author of a book called "Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, And The Untold Story Of The Menthol Cigarette."

DEMBY: And just like Henry Brown/Mandrake, Keith said he first noticed that something was going on when he was a kid in the 1970s, and his neighborhood in New York was covered with ads for menthols - on billboards, in magazines.

WAILOO: You saw Black, you know, people enjoying life with a cigarette in their mouth. And I didn't realize at the time how novel this was, you know, partly because the U.S. government had recently banned radio and television ads, and the industry really pivoted hard into Black neighborhoods and into billboard advertising at that moment. So - and then I moved out to New Jersey, a sort of suburban community, to finish high school. And I'm like, where are all the billboard ads? Where are all the menthol ads. And, you know, it had to do with the sort of geography of marketing, but it also had to do with the geography of race because if I went down to the next city over, which is Newark, N.J., there they were again.

DEMBY: But let's back up a bit.


DEMBY: Keith said the menthol cigarette was first developed way, way back in the 1920s. It was marketed as a kind of less harsh, "healthier" - I'm doing air quotes - "healthier" alternative to regular cigarettes.

WAILOO: Because menthol, you know, has that distinctive feeling in your nose and throat. It feels like coolness. It feels like your airways are expanding. It isn't. It's a - what one scientist called a perversion of sensation. It makes you feel healthy. And so that's why lozenges have menthol, and that's why Vicks VapoRub has menthol. And so the menthol cigarette emerged as a cigarette where the industry said like, if you have smoker's throat, if you are smoking a cigarette and you need a break, then smoke a menthol.

DEMBY: You got a cold and you can't smoke your regular cigarettes? Then holler at these methylated spud cigarettes in the meantime while you recover.

WAILOO: So and even in the 1950s, you know, the makers of Kool had these ads with Willie the Penguin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Switch from hots to Snow Fresh filter Kools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Kools, Snow Fresh Kools.

WAILOO: ...Who would say, you know, to the viewers of these cartoons, when April showers make you cough like crazy, refreshing Kools taste fresh as a daisy. You know, switch from hots to cools. And so it's - it was all medication oriented.

DEMBY: And that was around the time that health experts first started making the connection between smoking and lung cancer, so the cigarette companies really leaned into this notion of healthier cigarettes more broadly. It's in the 1960s that the tobacco companies change tack and really, really start selling menthols to Black folks.

WAILOO: What happened in the '50s is Congress stepped in, and regulators stepped in, and really threatened the industry and said, you know, we don't want you recruiting young people as the next generation of smokers. The industry pulls out of advertising on college campuses. And where do they go? They pivot to these cities, cities that are changing demographically, that are increasingly Black. And that's where the story of how menthol became a Black cigarette preference starts.

DEMBY: So fast-forward a few decades in the 1990s. There was this giant lawsuit in which a bunch of states sued the tobacco industry. They wanted the tobacco companies to pay for the health care cost of all the people who were dying from smoking-related illnesses. The tobacco company settled that lawsuit with the states, but not before they had to turn over decades and decades of documents and memos, papers that showed how and why and to whom they were selling their products.

WAILOO: And suddenly, all of this material about how the industry built its markets, how they thought about race, how they thought about Black people, why they started to pivot to menthol marketing in the city, all that became publicly available.

DEMBY: What's wild about those documents is just how sophisticated and deliberate they were about trying to hook Black folks and how targeted their tactics were. The tobacco companies could really hone in on Black people as a demographic because, in big cities, Black people all lived in the same places - #HousingSegregation and everything. And Keith said the cigarette companies studied those Black neighborhoods really, really carefully.

WAILOO: They were interested in, like, segregation. They were interested in neighborhood dynamics on street corners. The industry was doing Black studies, and they were doing gender studies. They were interested in Black masculinity long before Black studies was an academic discipline, long before gender studies.

DEMBY: As one example, the tobacco companies realized the Marlboro Man, the white dude with a cowboy hat on a horse, that wasn't going to play with Black men the way it did for white men. So they started to become interested in what Black men thought of as cool, what made Black women feel stylish.

WAILOO: But they weren't interested because they were interested in Black communities. They were interested in it because they needed to figure out how to sell cigarettes effectively. And so you don't know whether to be, like, amazed by the material that they were able to document about the nature of Black life or whether to be horrified by it.

DEMBY: When the tobacco companies were doing these, I don't know, ethnographic, sociological deep dives, they tried to figure out who the social mavens in these neighborhoods were.

WAILOO: They were not looking at, like, the president of the bank or the local leader of the PTA. What they're looking for is the barber and the bellhop and the numbers runner and the taxi driver.

DEMBY: They were looking for the folks in the neighborhood who knew, you know, where the parties were, who knew where the fun stuff was happening, who knew everybody, basically. The tobacco companies referred to them as kingfish. Today, we just call those people influencers.

WAILOO: You can actually look at these internal corporate documents to see how influencing worked. We can find this online today, right? There are industry-sponsored influencers that are followed by others. In some ways, the industry invented these practices. And our strategy, this memo says, is to hand out what they call boast material - that is, like, free samples. But they say you have to do it in a secretive way. It can't look like you are manipulating others.

There's a Black psychologist who actually advised the industry about this strategy. He emphasized the importance of creating images that depict people, quote, "in the way Black people see themselves," erasing any hint of what the white man thinks of us and carefully editing these images so that the nature of its appeal has been divested of any exploitation or manipulative connotations.

DEMBY: And remember those billboards that Keith said dotted his neighborhood - the same ones that sent Mandrake on his whole crusade? The lawsuit documents show that there was a method to the marketing there, too.

WAILOO: I have documents that show that they knew exactly how many people walked by any given billboard at any given time and whether those billboards were visible from the apartments that I lived in. They know that if Black people travel on a particular bus from their neighborhood into downtown Pittsburgh, let's say, then you can advertise Black-themed mentholated ads on the inside of the bus, and you know you're reaching your audience.

However, if those buses go through white neighborhoods, you can't advertise Black-themed ads on the outside of the bus because you're trying to keep white menthol smokers who might be turned off by Black-themed ads. The specificity of their understanding of things like segregation, transportation patterns, who lives where, who works where and how you reach people is really - was really one of the most stunning things in researching this book.

DEMBY: And Black political figures and Black institutions - they were implicated in all this, too. I remember, when I was growing up, reading my Aunt Carol's (ph) Ebony and Jet magazines. She kept them stacked on her coffee table. And it felt like every single issue had an ad for Kool or Newports or Virginia Slims on the back cover. And it turns out that was not an accident. Keith says those ads were designed to make Black people feel like they were important.

WAILOO: And, you know, John Johnson, who was a publisher at Ebony, you know, really saw Ebony as, like, catering to African American consumers. And his view was that Black people wanted and needed what he called compensatory gratification. They were not allowed into country clubs or, you know, there were lots of things that were valued in consumer society. And so the strategy of, you might say, clothing a product in Black accomplishment, in Black upward mobility, in Black striving was a strategy that informed all the advertising in Ebony magazine. And the industry was just, you know, part and parcel of that.


WAILOO: Now, the problem with that is that, you know, it's fine if it's about, you know, cars or it's about appliances. But at the same time, you had growing concern in the mid-'60s about the health effects of cigarettes. And so you have this this mismatch where you have the Ebony magazine, Black periodicals, that are quiet about the health effects - the negative health effects of cigarette while promoting cigarette ads as a source of revenue and as a source of African American upward mobility.

DEMBY: Here's one example of what that looked like.


DEMBY: Nat King Cole was, at one point, probably, like, the most famous Black person in America.

WAILOO: You know, paragon of African American musical accomplishment, beautiful, you know, crooning voice.


NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Unforgettable...

DEMBY: And if you look at old footage of Nat King Cole, he was almost always smoking. Nat King Cole died of lung cancer.

WAILOO: When Ebony magazine covered his death, they never mentioned smoking once. When they covered his death, full biographical sketch on every feature of this man's accomplishments, including civil rights accomplishments - didn't mention cigarettes. In that same issue, four different ads for menthol cigarettes.

DEMBY: And all this marketing and influence-seeking, it worked wonders for the tobacco industry. In the early 1960s, only about 5% of Black folks who smoked were menthol smokers. But as we know, a few decades later, at least 80% of Black smokers are menthol smokers.


DEMBY: Jump to when Mandrake was crusading against menthol marketing on the South Side of Chicago in the 1990s. One of his foils was the then-head of the NAACP - a dude named Benjamin Hooks. Hooks said that claiming Black folks would be swayed by ads and billboards was paternalistic and condescending. He said that smoking was a matter of personal choice. And Hooks, as it turned out, was also being paid by the company that made Newports. And it's that history of industry influence, Keith said, that should make us skeptical today of some of the people making arguments against the menthol ban on the grounds of it being a civil rights issue.

WAILOO: Well, I was just being informed this afternoon about a poll that was being done by a Democratic pollster that is making the rounds that is funded, not surprisingly, by Altria...

DEMBY: Altria is the tobacco company that used to be known as Philip Morris.

WAILOO: ...Which purports to find that Black voters might be upset about - or some Black voters might be upset about a menthol ban and that the Biden administration should think very, very carefully about finalizing what has been proposed by the FDA, which is an outright ban of menthol cigarettes. And you see this with, you know, people who are claiming that the ban on menthol will produce all kinds of, you know, police surveillance and violence against Black communities today. They're also taking money from the industry. And these are - like, these are tested arguments - right? - that have been shown to resonate, that are produced. If you scratch the surface, they are brought to you by the makers of tobacco products, right? And that's part of the strategy here.

DEMBY: So I asked Keith about Eric Garner. You might remember, in 2014, Eric Garner was standing on a sidewalk in Staten Island, N.Y., when he was confronted by New York City police officers. Those officers sat on his head and his neck all while he tried to yell, I can't breathe, over and over. Eric Garner's death was caught on video, and it became another touchpoint in this long history of Black people and policing. What you might not remember is that the stated reason the cops gave for confronting Eric Garner in the first place was that they suspected him of selling loosies.


DEMBY: Eric Garner's mother, notably, has come out against a ban on menthols. The thinking goes, if menthols become a prohibited product, then the consequences of police enforcement of that ban is going to fall on Black folks and Black neighborhoods. Keith feels for the people who are moved by those arguments, but he wants to remind people the enforcement of the ban is less likely to fall on individual smokers, despite what cigarette companies may want you to think.

WAILOO: People would like you to think that you're going to produce more people crying out, I can't breathe, if you ban the menthol cigarette, but they have it upside-down. The ultimate endpoint of smoking menthols or any cigarettes is, I can't breathe. Strangling your lungs, causing emphysema, causing lung cancer - the difference between the murder of Eric Garner and the industry is that the industry's - we don't actually have them on video. We don't actually see the long, long process. This is not a story that plays out over minutes. It's not a story that plays out over weeks. It's a story that plays out over decades.

And you can't see the people - if I were to be really harsh about it - who have their hands around the neck of Black people. It's really the industry that wants you to think that, like, they're on the side of safeguarding the health of Black folks when, in fact, they've never been on the side of safeguarding the health of Black folks. In fact, the cigarette is probably - as Louis Sullivan said, the cigarette is the only consumer product which is deadly if used as instructed.


DEMBY: Keith Wailoo is the author of "Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, And The Untold Story Of The Menthol Cigarette." Keith, thank you so much for rocking with us.

WAILOO: Thank you.


DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch - all one word. If email is more your jam, ours is And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also subscribe to the newsletter at

PARKER: Just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners - we appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Xavier Lopez. It was edited by Leah Donnella. Our engineer was James Willetts. And we would be remiss if we did not shout-out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - that's Christina Cala, Jess Kung, Dalia Mortada, Veralyn Williams and Lori Lizarraga. As for me, I'm Gene Demby.

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

PARKER: Hydrate.


DEMBY: You had a cold, and you can't smoke your regular cigarettes? Don't worry about that, baby. Holler at these mentholated Spud cigarettes in the meantime while you're recovering. (Laughter) I'm sorry. That's just the voice that came out. Sorry. That's not how they would've - I'm sorry.

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