Why former Columbus Michael Coleman wants a ban on menthol flavored tobacco

Michael B. Coleman

Michael B. Coleman was elected to four terms as mayor of Columbus, from 2000 to 2015.

Tobacco companies have been target new customers long with their lethal products.

Earlier this month, Juul Labs provisionally agreed to a $439 million settlement after a multi-state investigation, the company was found to be openly and successfully courting teenagers through flavors and marketing tactics known to be appealing to underage audiences.

After:Juul to pay nearly $440 million to settle states investigation into marketing vaping products to teens

But even when I was a kid, the industry knew how to hook young people with flavors. I know because I was one of them.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I tried my first menthol cigarette. I loved how the mint flavor masked the harshness of the smoke pouring into my young lungs. The other black kids I knew smoked menthol – as did the black people in the cigarette ads I saw. When I was in college, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. sponsored Kool Jazz concerts, aimed at young African-American men like me.

Industry marketing has had an undeniable impact on me. I thought smoking was cool – or Kohl.

As I started a family and started my own elected career, I repeatedly tried to quit. I wanted to improve my own health, of course, but I also wanted to serve as a positive role model for my own children and the residents I served.

Former Mayor Michael Coleman is sworn in for his first term at the Palm House at the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Garden on Thursday, Dec. 30, 1999. Coleman said he smoked more than a pack of menthol cigarettes a day when he was campaigning for mayor.

When I was elected in November 1999 to be the new mayor of Columbus – and the first black – I was aware that my personal habits would be open to public scrutiny. But even though I paid more attention to when and where I smoked, I couldn’t stop myself.

Stephanie Hightower:Tobacco Industry’s Racist Tactics Lure Blacks With Menthol Cigarettes

My turning point came in 2001, when I was rushed to hospital with a severe throat infection.

As I struggled to breathe, I overheard the medical staff discussing whether to put me on a ventilator or give me a tracheostomy. Frightened for my future and for my life, I prayed for my recovery. If I could get out of that hospital room, I promised myself that I would never smoke again.

Letters:: ‘Menthol cigarettes killed my father.’ They do not see the color of the skin.

I got scared and quit cold turkey. But most smokers don’t get the second chance I had; I have since learned that the most common outcome of a health emergency I experienced 21 years ago is dead.

In fact, tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the black community, killing 45,000 African Americans each year. The vast majority of these lives are lost specifically to menthol cigarettes.

It’s not because African Americans were born with a preference for menthol; we are targeted very specifically and very successfully with advertisements, free materials and strategic prizes. In the 1950s, before this concerted campaign, 10% of African Americans smoked menthol; today it is 85%.

So when I was approached by the Coalition to End Tobacco Targeting, I was thrilled to be a part of it. Our Coalition represents hundreds of individuals, more than 125 community groups, public health advocacy organizations and religious institutions, and we are growing every day. Together, we respectfully ask our leaders to consider the health consequences of continuing to do these flavored products available in our community.

Ice Miller, the law firm where I work now, produced a study that exposes the predatory way these products are sold in the city of Columbus.

After:Coalition to End Tobacco Targeting Calls on City to End Sale of Flavored Tobacco Products

Retailers selling menthol cigarettes and flavored vaping products are strategically located near schools and in our city’s poorest neighborhoods – explicitly targeting our most vulnerable residents.

End the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, would significantly reduce the number of young people who become addicted to nicotine. If the City of Columbus were to enact such a law, as the Coalition has proposed, I believe other communities in central Ohio would follow its example, as it has done in the past.

Christie Angel:Big tobacco industry lures black teens to death with candy-flavored e-cigarettes

Like many, I appreciated the statement made by the elect of Columbus when they declared racism a public health crisis two years ago. I see this as the first and best opportunity to put that feeling into action.

I know I was lucky to be released from this hospital 21 years ago. Kids who try their first menthol cigarette or flavored vape pen tomorrow might not be so lucky. Let’s take this flavored poison off the shelves, instead of leaving our children’s lives to chance.

Michael B. Coleman was elected to four terms as mayor of Columbus, from 2000 to 2015.

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