Skip

African American smokers choose menthol cigs ~75% of the time; Whites ~25% of the time. Why?
November 3, 2009 8:16 AM   Subscribe

How did menthol cigarettes come to control such a large share of African American smokers' cigarette purchases? [quick cites: wikipedia, FDA (via USA Today), Harvard SoPH]

The studies linked put ~25% of White smokers as choosing menthol, and 70%-80% of African American smokers as choosing menthol. My anecdotal perceptions for my age cohort and region (~30, St. Louis, MO) seem like they'd widen the gulf even further. How did this come to be?

I suspect that the major mechanisms perpetuating this amount to: advertising (just by looking at where and how Kool and Newport [popular menthol cigarette brands] concentrate the bulk of their advertising) and inertia (just like all the products I use for no other reason than that my daddy used 'em). But how did it get that way, in this case?

Answers will be quite nuanced and variables quite interconnected, no doubt... not looking for any "just so" stories. Willing to read challenging things. Many thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
The answer is advertising. Kool began advertising to the substantially segregated African American market in the 1960s and 1970s, after menthols lost their mystique of being a healthy, sore throat-relieving cigarette. They (correctly) guessed that menthols would succeed in the segregated market due to this study:
"In 1953, Philip Morris commissioned the Roper organization to conduct a general survey of Americans’ smoking habits. The only menthol cigarette on the survey and the only one of any importance in the early 1950s was Kool. The Roper survey showed that only2% of White Americans preferred the Kool brand. By contrast, the survey reported that 5% of African Americans preferred Kool."
Quote and more information from here (pdf)
The African Americanization of menthol cigaretteuse in the United States, Phillip S. Gardiner, from Nicotine & Tobacco Research 2004
posted by acidic at 8:39 AM on November 3, 2009


Have not yet read the PDF, but will do so right away. But a question just to frame and clarify: If the Roper organization study was used to justify increased advertising, then advertising had not yet had time to be significantly tailored to the Black market. So how is it we're explaining the 5% Black v. 2% White preference figures? Reading now.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:45 AM on November 3, 2009


Acidic's answer suggests that the tobacco industry noticed an existing preference for menthols among African Americans and then amplified it through advertising. What is the supposed explanation for the initial (1953) difference in preference for menthols?
posted by onshi at 8:48 AM on November 3, 2009


Gah, sorry.
posted by onshi at 8:48 AM on November 3, 2009


(Just read the abstract, btw, and the paper looks to be a great one to explore this question. Many thanks. If I may ask: Were you sitting on this paper for some personal research interest, or did you search for it in response to the question? Either way; good work.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:48 AM on November 3, 2009


One thing that seems clear is that for quite some time, tobacco companies have really targeted advertising for menthols to black audiences. There may or may not be a chicken-and-egg problem there. It might be that marketers noticed that black people liked menthols, and responded to that.

Or it may be that some marketing guy, for reasons we'll never know, basically just came up with the idea - "Hey, let's invent a cigarette called Kools, and target it to black people. We'll make it menthol cause, you know, that's Kool" (or some other dumb reason). They run a million ads in magazines read by black people are for Kools, put up billboards in predominantly black neighbourhoods for Kools. Assuming People respond to cigarette advertising, pretty soon lots of black peopel are smoking Kools. And so now there is a general taste among black people for methols, so competing companies put out menthol cigarettes targeted to blacks.

My understanding is that that kind of targeting is a big part of how cigarette marketing works: Viriginia Slims for women, Joe Camel for young people, etc. Some of it is pretty arbitrary- there's nothing inherently more youthful about the cigarettes that come in a pack of camels than other cigarettes, it's just how they sell them. The cigarettes in a Marlboro pack are not notably manly, but that is the image the chose to associate with those cigarettes for a long time.

For some reason the strategy often seems to be: you chose a brand, target it to a specific market (in a way that might be quite arbitrary), and focus on that. (Why that should be is a whole 'nother question).

So one possibility it that it's actually *not* a nuanced story with interconnected variables. Just a set of fairly arbitrary initial marketing decisions, combined with a whole lot of advertising money- pretty much the same way cigarettes are targetted to all sorts of different markets.
posted by ManInSuit at 8:50 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


jjjjjjjijjjjjjj, the paper is the third result for a google search of "menthol cigarette history." It does seem to be a good paper, and it cites various studies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s that I imagine you could find easily-- not merely to read and learn, but to understand the prevailing beliefs about cigarette preference at the time. Anyhow, the difference between 2 and 5% is remarkably small (depending on the size of the study) but I would hypothesize that it's related to how convinced the subjects were by the supposed health benefits of menthols. In 1953 the educational (science class?) backgrounds of white and black Americans might have differed enough to explain some of this difference.

Incidentally, after I posted the first time I went out and bought a pack of my beloved menthols without even realizing why. This stuff is evil!
posted by acidic at 9:08 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't really know anything about the menthols thing (also, looking at your stats I guess my dad was like the one white Kool man out there) but tobacco companies are freaking INSANE at marketing.

Years ago, I was wondering how the word 'hipster' all of the sudden had seemed so ubiquitous, whereas only a few years earlier, it was about as common to refer to a dude as a "cat", i.e. not at all. Anyway, I haven't been able to find the cite in the last few years I've looked, but apparently, the first published 'modern' use of the word 'hipster', late-20th century, referring to...well, hipsters, not beatniks or jazz cats or whatever, was in a Camel Cigarettes marketing document from the early 90s.

I think this is it: 'Trend Influence Marketing' from 1994! Read this. Its insane. Basically, back in 1994, they were like, "here's the thing, 10 years from now, a bunch of 20 somethings are going to live in cities and hang out in coffee shops and bars and be really into competitive music/clothing fanship. If we play our cards right, they will all smoke and they will all smoke Camels." And look around, that's exactly what happened! I just can't believe how effective this campaign was.

So, not exactly directly related to your question, but I bet if you dig around the websites like tobaccofreedom.org, you'll find some PDF from the olden days thats like, "Guess what: we are going to make sure black people who smoke smoke Newports," and a bunch of PDFs that showed how they did it, slowly but surely. Normally, I'm super-skeptical of that whole AdBusters mentality of how much corporate advertising controls our behavior, but reading these old tobacco docs and looking around at the world, it's really striking. Tobacco companies have the knowledge, money, need, and sticktoitiveness to change culture. The Camel/Hipster thing makes that book about Roger Ailes and Nixon seem like a Kindergarten project.

On the other thing, remember Uptowns? That was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, so maybe my menthol theory is wrong and the Camel/Hipster Trend Influence Marketing plan was just a 'lucky' coincidence.

If you enjoy reading about cigarette marketing, you might enjoy reading about N.W. Ayer, who ran the initial Camel introduction campaign in the 1910s. This campaign is insane in how modern it is: teasers, mystery, outdoor, guerilla...everything you think of as cutting-edge modern stuff (modulo interactive) was used in the N.W. Ayer campaign that introduced Camels. N.W. Ayer is kind of the slept-on force in the creation of 20th Century American culture: They did the early diamond marketing for De Beers (which everyone on MeFi loves to hate on), and I believe they also had a lot to do with early Coca-Cola marketing, and possibly with the modern image of Santa Claus. I've been meaning to learn more about this. There's an old HBS book about golden age N.W. Ayer called History of An Advertising Agency, but I can't recommend it because in the years its been sitting on my shelf I haven't gotten around to reading it. Also the story of Edward Bernays, particularly his Torches of Freedom campaign for Lucky Strike, is pretty nuts.
posted by jeb at 9:18 AM on November 3, 2009 [16 favorites]


How does this targetting continue to work today, now that most tobacco advertising is restricted?

I started smoking about a year ago (a decision I'm not terribly happy with), but all of my decisions have been social (my friends smoke them) or taste based - Camels at first, then Belmonts and now Gauloises. I think the only time I bought a pack because of advertising was a Marlboro off a vending machine in Spain (you can't buy them in Canada, as far as I can tell), but then I quickly switched to Lucky Strikes.
posted by pmv at 9:22 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is not scholarly at all and is almost all speculation, but something I have noticed is the wide availbility of "loosies" in African American and minority neighborhoods, where convenience stores are likely to be bodegas or family owned rather than a chain (WaWa, Turkey Hill, etc). The store owners can use their discretion to sell cigarettes out of the pack. Similarly, I have seen all over NYC, bodegas/family stores where liquor is sold in a similar manner. The store owner provides plastic cup of rum or vodka for sipping for about $2 or $3. I don't know if that increases people's drinking or whatever

In most cities that I have been to in the US, I have noticed that black people are more likely to buy "loosies" than a pack of cigarettes at the corner store, and that the "loosy" is almost always a Newport. I don't know if "loosies" predate the high percentage of blacks smoking menthols, but all the smokers I know (and granted they are in NYC) say that there have always been "loosies." (I have always been fascinated by "loosies" thinking they were "Lucy's.")

I feel like the accessibility that "loosies" can give to smokers who don't want to buy or can't afford a pack of cigarettes at the time or ever is great. Sort of contributes to the immediate gratification/lack of saving attribute that is often attributed to minorities. Why save up/budget for a pack of cigs when I can just buy a few with pocket change.

Further, in the past, before hardcore regulation on smoking age, minority kids/teens who may have wanted to try smoking can easily get a "loosie" than a pack of cigarettes without arousing too much suspicion/scrutiny by the store owner. SO, right away, their preferred or known brand is likely Newports/menthols. The low price (10 cents to 50 cents) can also be attractive to a beginning smoker, and maybe creates brand loyalty if they continue to smoke.

Or maybe, the mere offering of cigarettes out of the pack increases the visibilty of the brand. So, it is a little like what you said, except people smoke it because it's the brand they've always seen others smoking. Or even hear other people buying. The tobacco product I hear purchased the most in a store is Newports. As a non smoker, if it weren't for advertising for others, I would probably only be able to name one cigarette brand based on seeing people purchase it.
posted by alice ayres at 9:40 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that that kind of targeting is a big part of how cigarette marketing works: Viriginia Slims for women, Joe Camel for young people, etc. Some of it is pretty arbitrary- there's nothing inherently more youthful about the cigarettes that come in a pack of camels than other cigarettes, it's just how they sell them. The cigarettes in a Marlboro pack are not notably manly, but that is the image the chose to associate with those cigarettes for a long time.

Right. But
  1. Across parent companies, menthols are heavily targeted towards black people. Kool and Salem are RJR brands, Newport is Lorillard. So here we've got at least two different companies making the same arbitrary marketing decision, and it makes sense to ask why.
  2. AFAIK, there are no non-menthol cigarette brands that are specifically targeted towards black people. The non-menthol brands divide up the population by age, gender and income. And again, it make sense to ask why. Brands do every now and then try to grab a new market demographic, and if, say, Phillip Morris — who don't make a menthol cigarette that I'm aware of — thought they could snag a bigger chunk of the market by creating a non-menthol brand that targeted black smokers, they'd do it in a heartbeat. So why haven't they?
In most cities that I have been to in the US, I have noticed that black people are more likely to buy "loosies" than a pack of cigarettes at the corner store, and that the "loosy" is almost always a Newport.

This could be true. But on the one hand, if the company that makes Newports is making an effort to get corner stores to sell them loose, you've gotta ask why it's Newports and not another of their brands that they're promoting that way. And on the other hand, if the owners of the corner stores are deciding on their own to sell Newports loose, it's got to be because that's where the demand is — and then we can ask what's generating that demand.


How does this targetting continue to work today, now that most tobacco advertising is restricted?

Event sponsorship. Product placement. "Viral marketing." Astroturfing.

For all I know, you're a shill for RJR, and the little voice in the back of my head going "Man, I remember that one summer when I was smoking Luckies" was what you were aiming for all along. (Note: I do not actually think you work for RJR. But of all the strangers you've heard discussing their brand of cigarettes, it's basically guaranteed that some of them have.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:46 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


And further to the importance of "loosies" and how it is interchangeable with Newports is this article about price hike for cigarettes. Most notable:

"When you ain't got money for a pack, you still want a cigarette," said Clifford, who is unemployed. "It holds you down until you get a pack."


And then this article talks about the contribution of informal exchange of cigarettes and bumming of cigarettes and loose cigarettes to high smokign rates among young Blacks, but not necessarily about the preference of menthols.
posted by alice ayres at 9:54 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The fact that Newport, Kool, and Salem all targeted and target African Americans is in no way arbitrary. The difference between menthols and regulars is far, far greater than the difference between lights and regulars. They're not marketed explicitly toward African Americans, they're marketed explicitly as being minty fresh and delicious, so the marketing of one brand assists the others. Historically, Kool lost a great deal of market share in the 70s or 80s due to, IIRC, a host of false rumors including a relationship with the KKK. People, and especially black people were hooked on menthols and a menthol is a menthol but *not* any old cigarette, so they switched to other brands.

FURTHERMORE, as long as menthols are commonly considered to be a black person's cigarette, some white people are more inclined to avoid them. This may seem silly and racist, considering how minty fresh delicious menthols are, but it doesn't take much to swing a cigarette preference one way or another. In some circles nowadays they're considered a sissy cigarette or a sugar-addict cigarette. This is closer to the truth!

I forgot that one other reason for the menthol's successful segregated marketing is that it was promoted as a good way to prolong a marijuana high. Menthols were not merely a black person's cigarette but a young, hip, chill, urban black person's cigarette. In other words, the kind of person who had many many years left in life and is probably still smoking menthols now.

ALso: Despite the near-lack of cigarette advertising nowadays, peer influence still stands. You smoke what you see other cool people smoke. Commenting on another smoker's brand is a tried and true component of smoking chitchat. It's my belief that without the influence of advertising to mold and reify patterns in brand preference, such preference is becoming more malleable particularly among hipsters who are heavy smokers to begin with and appreciate ironic, quirky, original, and unconventional cigarette statements. Cigarette is fashion.
posted by acidic at 10:38 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


It seems like a lot of people are seriously over thinking this. Obviously it's all marketing. The parent company of Kools, for whatever strategic reason, (most likely, because the black smoker demographic did not have a particular brand that they were overly loyal to and after extensive market research, this was discovered) decided that a hardcore marketing campaign aimed toward black people wouldn't hurt. This campaign obviously worked and it could be argued that black people being pretty much ignored by many companies, saw this attention as a pretty good reason to buy that particular brand. When Newports came out over 20 years later, black people were already smoking a disproportionate amount of mentholated cigarettes and, most likely, the younger smokers in the black community who saw the older smokers sucking down Kools, moved on to the newer brand, again due to Newport's extensive marketing to the black community.

The reason more white people don't smoke menthols is partly because many white people think menthols are cigarettes that black inner city [i.e. poor] people smoke, partly because groups tend to buy products targeted at their particular demographic (like Marlboro), and partly because in the same way that black people grew up in communities where the majority of smokers smoked menthols, white people grew up in communities where the majority of smokers did not.

For the record, in high school I started smoking Marlboro Reds, because that's what all of the other grunge kids that I hung out with were smoking. I then moved on to Marlboro 100s, because, well, they were longer, then the last two years of high school and first year or so of college, I smoked unfiltered Pall Malls (blame Kurt Vonnegut) and since then I've primarily smoked American Spirits, which are marketed to hippies and those with hippie tendencies. And if I'm broke, I roll or make cigarettes. I've never smoked menthols and I'm black. As a teenager, the fact that my mother smoked menthols was a major bummer, because I couldn't "borrow" any from her pack.
posted by eunoia at 10:48 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The initial 2% vs. 5% thing is interesting. I would posit that it is small enough to just be random chance. This tiny, mostly meaningless variance was then amplified via marketing.
posted by chairface at 11:08 AM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


1. Across parent companies, menthols are heavily targeted towards black people. Kool and Salem are RJR brands, Newport is Lorillard. So here we've got at least two different companies making the same arbitrary marketing decision, and it makes sense to ask why.


One possible explanation (totally conjecture) goes something like this:

1) Way back in the 50's (or whenever) a company notices there's no-one really targetting a brand of cigarettes to black people.
2) They do a really big marketing campaign for their cigarettes. Which happen to be menthols, for reasons that could be pretty random.
3) The campain is really successful. A couple of other companies say "We have to get in on this 'sellling menthols to black people' business, and launch their own campaigns
4) The combination of all these campaigns affects peoples' tastes. Because lots of people see menthol ads, lots of people smoke menthol cigarettes, and that becomes what they like. Menthols are now the cigarette of choice among black people, and among those who advertise cigarettes to black people.

Again - this is totally conjecture, but it does describe one possible way that this state of affairs could happen without any deep underlying connection between blackness and mintiness.
posted by ManInSuit at 11:58 AM on November 3, 2009


This tiny, mostly meaningless variance was then amplified via marketing.

This appears (to me, at least) to be the conclusion of the Gardiner report. They call the initial 2% vs. 5% variance "small, not "meaningless":
This small difference in preference was successfully parlayed by Brown & Williamson executives, and later by the tobacco industry as a whole, into the 70% vs. 30% difference that we see today between Black and White menthol smokers, respectively
The thrust of the report seems to be that in the fifties, almost no one, black or white, smoked menthols. Then, B&W decided to market to the African American population, seized on this difference, and the rest is history. If this initial difference were in some other dimension, say slims vs. regular-sized, we'd be asking why slim cigarettes came to dominate the African American cigarette market.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in that report on exactly how B&W marketed their cigarettes, including philanthropic contributions to civil rights organizations (!).
posted by mhum at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2009


This kinda thing perpetuates itself because when people begin smoking, they usually start by bumming cigarettes from their friends. Then they end up smoking what their friends smoke.
posted by twblalock at 1:20 PM on November 3, 2009


This question and its answers remind me of The Tipping Point. That book doesn't address menthols specifically, but it does talk about smoking in general.

I think marketing+twablalock's answer have it, that is, marketing+word of mouth. Once the effective marketing campaigns have all the young black people of various social groups smoking menthols, their younger friends/relatives will start smoking by bumming off of them, and then eventually become consumers on their own. I'm sure this was/is especially true when/where social groups are more racially segregated.
Same with any other group, all the young hipsters or whatever. Although, in my city, most hipster smokers go with either American Spirits or Parliaments, sometimes Pall Mall because they're cheap. It would also be interesting to research smoking rates among "hipsters" vs. non-hipsters of the same age groups. I bet smoking is at least 5x more common among hipsters than others. I also would not be surprised to see some white hipsters smoking menthols because it has always been pretty popular for white hipsters to try to co-opt black culture/minority cultures in general.
posted by ishotjr at 2:40 PM on November 3, 2009


I've heard that black people didn't smoke that much until menthols came onto the market, because most of them didn't like the taste of regular tobacco.
posted by brujita at 8:57 PM on November 3, 2009


« Older I'm heading to Iraq in several...   |  Have any of you tried any at-h... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post