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How cigarettes became a civil-rights issue

1970s USA Newport Magazine Advert.

Credit: Alamy

Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette Keith Wailoo Univ. Chicago Press (2021)

In 2019, when the New York City Council proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, health advocates noted their popularity among Black Americans, and the disproportionate harm they brought to the community. But the move had a vocal critic.

Civil-rights icon Al Sharpton opposed the ban, arguing that sales would go underground, drawing unwanted police attention to Black people as a result. The proposal was dropped.

In this incident, medical historian Keith Wailoo saw a pattern repeating: civil-rights champions have frequently opposed restrictions on sales of menthol cigarette in defence of Black consumers’ choices. Wailoo’s book Pushing Cool documents how, starting in the 1960s, the US tobacco industry methodically and deliberately brought about this cruel irony, by tailoring its marketing and branding to drive up menthol sales among Black smokers. The corporations drew in Black cultural figures, civil-rights leaders and politicians in their bid to keep selling flavoured cigarettes.

Wailoo makes a case that tobacco companies strategically cultivated preferences for menthol cigarettes in Black communities over decades, to keep sales rising and deflect concerns about health risks.

His takeaway is this: Black Americans today smoke menthols at higher rates than any other group because of the ‘push’ from cigarette companies and their savvy advertisers rather than the ‘pull’ of consumer preferences. The health impacts are stark: Black Americans are more likely than white ones to die from diseases linked to smoking.

Wailoo mines press reports through the decades, along with posters, billboards and troves of internal industry documentation that cigarette companies were forced to make public after a spate of lawsuits that ended in 1998. With deadly repetition, menthols have been silent players on the stage of US history, witnesses to epic flashpoints at which health and politics collide. The case is stronger for the specificity and rich detail that Wailoo weaves into it, although occasionally the vast cast of characters makes it difficult to follow the plot.

‘Healthy’ profits

From the 1930s to the 1950s, tobacco companies marketed menthols as healthier alternatives to normal smokes, falsely touting the cooling sensation from the minty flavour as a salve for sore throats or colds. Market research indicated that people worried about health risks could be pacified with suggestions of medicinal effects from a menthol brand.

Two events shifted that dynamic. First, the US government began shutting down false advertising claims about health benefits, prompting companies to cast around for other aspects of their customers’ tastes, preferences or identity that influenced how they shopped.

Second, the strongest evidence yet of the health harms of cigarettes arrived in 1964, when a pivotal report from the US surgeon-general linked smoking to lung cancer. No longer able to hook people on health, cigarette companies looked to target customers on the basis of race, gender and class. As the civil-rights movement reached a crescendo that decade, market-research firms identified Black Americans as a vast untapped market for menthol sales.

Billboards went up in cities with a majority of Black residents; many fewer turned up in suburbs that white people were moving to. “Racial marketing” began to define advertising of menthol brands. A 1964 ad by Brown & Williamson for its Kool brand of menthol cigarettes marked such a shift: a smiling young man and woman lean over a rock parapet by a waterfall. Each holds a cigarette; the woman reaches past a palm frond and trails one hand in the stream. The tagline: “Feel extra coolness in your throat.” Black news media ran a version featuring a Black couple, a rare early inclusion of Black models in advertising. A white couple posed in the version that reached white readers.

In the 1970s, tobacco branding was endemic at cultural and sporting events; for a time, Brown & Williamson was a major sponsor of jazz concerts. And in the 1980s, dollars flowed from tobacco companies to social and political causes: Brown & Williamson partnered with civil-rights group the NAACP to fund a business incubator; RJR supported Ebony, the Black culture magazine; Philip Morris sponsored a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that drew 8,000 attendees.

Wronging rights

These moves paid dividends over the next decades, as the US government and health leaders tried to curb Big Tobacco, Wailoo argues.

In the 1990s, when US health secretary Louis Sullivan opposed an upcoming menthol brand called Uptown, aimed at Black smokers, one of his chief adversaries was NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks.

Uptown never made it to the shelves, but menthol burned on. In 2009, US legislators elected to regulate tobacco as a drug, and flavoured cigarettes were banned — all except menthols, after opposition from powerful Black lawmakers. In 2018, when US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb tried to enact a menthol-cigarette ban, he failed. Two years later, the FDA proposed bans on vape flavours because of their appeal to young people, but exempted menthol. This April, the regulator announced that it was working on another proposal to ban menthol cigarettes; what shape that will take remains to be seen.

In a grim coda, Wailoo observes that before they were killed in police custody, Eric Garner used to sell cigarettes, and George Floyd was buying some. Their deaths, in 2014 and 2020, sparked resurgences in the Black Lives Matter movement and global calls to end racism. Yet again, he notes, tobacco companies’ pervasive legacies linger on, colliding with the defining social movements of our day.

Nature 598, 407-408 (2021)


Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.


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