Big Tobacco Hooked Black Americans on menthols. Now he is fighting the ban as racial injustice.
After years of delay, the Food and Drug Administration last month offers a nationwide ban on the sale and production of menthol cigarettes. As efforts to remove menthol fumes from the market have gained momentum in recent years, the industry have moved away from black-led organizations and black lawmakers. And new documents shared with HuffPost offer a behind-the-scenes look at how a tobacco giant is presenting itself as an ally in the fight for racial justice.
In early February, Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA, scheduled a meeting with the 21st Century Institute for the Black World (IBW), a Baltimore-based organization that works to empower black communities. IBW board member Greg Akili told HuffPost the group hesitantly agreed to the meeting at the request of a former board member – a move he said he and others quickly regretted.
Altria spent the meeting bragging about her criminal justice work and her historic efforts to support civil rights, Akili said. Altria has launched a potential partnership with IBW, but there has been no specific request or offer of support for the group whose work is primarily focused on ending the war on drugs and securing reparations. for descendants of slaves.
âA lot of us saw this as an attempt to put ourselves on the black side,â Akili said. “What they haven’t talked about is that over 45,000 black people are going to die from cigarettes this year.”
Akili says he raised this made, as well as the aggressive advertising by Philip Morris International of cigarettes abroad, including near schools in Africa, and received little response. (Philip Morris International and Philip Morris USA have been separate entities since PMI’s separation from Altria in 2008. PMI now sells Marlboro and other Philip Morris brands globally, while PMUSA sells them nationally.)
Akili, a longtime civil rights activist in Los Angeles, described the meeting as “offensive”, “disappointing”, “unproductive” and unproductive since it did not focus on priority IBW issues. He said he left early so as not to say something rude.
âThey are doing this to say that they are talking to black organizations,â Akili said. “It’s a classic show of dogs and ponies.”
Altria spoke only briefly about her opposition to the ban on menthol and other flavored tobacco products, Akili said. But in a follow-up email two weeks later, Angela Arboleda, Senior Director of Federal Government Affairs at Altria, thanked the IBW Board members for taking the time to meet and provided documents on Altria’s “Principles of Criminal Justice Reform” and a February 2020 letter from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to members of Congress, warning that ‘a menthol ban’ promises continued over-criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color.
“We are concerned that the ban on flavorings in tobacco products and the imposition of mandatory minimums will give law enforcement yet another excuse to harass and arrest people of color, âArboleda wrote to board members. administration of IBW after the meeting. “We believe there are better ways to fight nicotine addiction rather than punishing people in prison.”
The ban proposed by the FDA, which was ad last month, is not intended to target and stop smokers. It would regulate manufacturers, retailers and distributors, not individual consumers. The Biden administration said the move would reduce cigarette consumption overall and help address tobacco-related health disparities in communities of color.
Altria “just feeds black fears,” Akili said.
George Parnam, a spokesperson for Altria, confirmed that company representatives had met with the group.
âWe engage with many different stakeholders to share public policy positions on issues relevant to our businesses, and to understand concerns and answer questions,â he said. “Our goal is to switch adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but Prohibition is not working.”
He added that âthe criminalization of menthol could lead to serious unintended consequencesâ because âthe illicit sale and distribution of tobacco products is a crimeâ in all 50 states.
âA much better approach is to support the creation of a market for FDA approved smoke-free alternatives that are attractive to adult smokers,â he added.
Parnam did not respond to HuffPost’s question about what, if anything, came from his meeting with IBW.
IBW spokesperson and board member Don Rojas did not respond to requests for comment from HuffPost.
As the industry fights against stricter tobacco regulations, it is also rename itself as the solution to the public health crisis it created, marketing what he describes as âsmokeless,â âbetterâ and âless riskyâ alternatives to conventional tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco.
These alternatives include Philip Morris International’s IQOS, a device that looks a lot like an electronic cigarette and heats leaf tobacco without burning it, allowing it to deliver nicotine in aerosol form rather than smoking. Altria sells IQOS in the United States under an exclusive license agreement with Philip Morris International.
Stopping the proposed menthol ban would, of course, allow Altria to continue selling the flavored cigarettes that represent about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States
Civil rights groups are divided on the issue. The ACLU and the National Action Network oppose a menthol ban, citing fears it will lead to an underground market for menthol products and increase interactions between police and people of color. Opponents often cite the case of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of a police officer in 2014 after being arrested for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes in Staten Island, New York.
“We don’t think kids should be jailed or ticketed for selling menthol,” Sharpton Told The Washington Post last month. “Are you going to give the police another reason to hire our people?”
Organizations like the NAACP and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, however, say a ban is needed to address a social justice problem that disproportionately harms minority groups. Although they smoke fewer cigarettes than other racial and ethical groups, African Americans are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses, according to at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black children and adults are also more likely to be exposed to second-hand smoke.
âThe tobacco industry is narrowly looking for profit, and they killed us along the way,â the NAACP said in a statement in response to the FDA’s proposed ban. “It’s time we put the health and well-being of African Americans first.”
For Akili, the problem is extremely personal. When he was a teenager, his mother died after falling asleep on a sofa with a lit cigarette. By the time he joined her and pulled her out of the house, it was too late. She died largely after inhaling smoke from the smoldering furniture, he said.
This traumatic experience did not stop Akili from smoking himself. He eventually resigned in the 1980s and was involved in the fight against Big Tobacco for years as a project coordinator at Corporate Accountability International, a corporate watchdog group.
âThe impact of tobacco on my personal life certainly attracted me,â he said. âOpposing the menthol ban is a continuation of this fight.â
With decades of aggressive marketing that involved placing “greater amounts of advertising in African-American publicationsPhilip Morris and other tobacco companies have donated millions to civil rights organizations, including the ACLU and NAACP, and has sponsored educational and cultural events in the African American community, as a research public health activist, Dr. Phillip Gardiner shown.
Akili considers Altria’s appeal to IBW to be part of the industry’s strategy of using all tactics to improve its image while continuing to protect its bottom line.
âThey take advantage of the climate of demand for social justice to say ‘we are with you’,â he said.
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