According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), about 80 percent of Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes.  A study in 2013, found 9 out of 10 Black smokers pick menthol cigarettes.

“Why do Black people love menthols so much?”  Comedian Dave Chappelle asked an actress playing a social worker during a sketch on his Comedy Central show.


Dave Chappelle made the connection between African American culture and menthol cigarettes several times during his historic run on TV.  The most prominent was during the “I Know Black People,” game-show sketch. The second season skit has Dave asking a diverse group of contestants to find out how much they know about African American culture.

Grounds for a Controversial Ban

The alarming statistics, Dave Chappelle’s question (not really), and studies proving menthol cigarettes were easier to start smoking and harder to quit has brought attention to the issue. 5 years later, the USFDA is in pursuit of a ban on this favorite of the African American community.

The American Journal of Public Health published a study that reported (2012), 44.5 percent of African-American menthol smokers would quit smoking if the ban was enforced.

The proposed ban caused a riff in the African-American leadership since the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) support the decision.  While the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives oppose the ban.  Before we get too political, let’s focus our attention back to Dave’s question.

Dave gets answers as the group of people compete for the grand prize of bootleg DVDs and menthol cigarettes.

The first answer is from the social worker, “I don’t know.”

Chapelle replies with… “that is correct! No one knows for sure.

 Why Menthol?

  • Menthol provides a cooling sensation, suppresses coughing, and has a minty flavor that masks the harshness of cigarette smoke.
  • The substance is naturally found in mint plants (peppermint and spearmint) but also can be created synthetically.
  • The flavoring allows the lungs to expand further causing more of the cancer chemicals to enter the body, harming every organ. It often leads to addiction, disease, and eventually death.
  • Starting in the 1920s, menthol was added to cigarettes and they are more addictive than other types of cigarettes.

Is That What Newports Are?

The contestant that is a Disc Jockey (DJ) answered, “because that’s what Newports are?”

Dave replies, “That is correct.”

  • Newport (manufactured by Lorillard) is the most popular brand of menthols in the country.
  • Newports arrived in 1957 as menthol cigarettes became widespread.
  • Research showed tobacco giants like Lorillard Tobacco Company (R. J. Reynolds) target marketed African American communities and the youth.

 Statistics About African Americans Smoking Menthols

The police officer asks, “Is it a fact that they like menthol cigarettes?  I’m not even sure.  Um, I don’t know.”

Dave replies, “That is correct.”

  • A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that over three-quarters of Black high school smokers prefer Newport.
  • Historically, 70 percent of African American Youth use menthol cigarettes, according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
  • African Americans that smoke cigarettes are 11 times more likely to use menthol cigarettes than white smokers.
  • The New York Times stated menthol cigarettes account for about 1/3 of all cigarettes sold in the United States – 4 out of 5 African Americans smokers reported using them in federal surveys.

Menthol Marketing Through Magazines & More

  • In the 1980s, cigarette salesmen targeted low-income African Americans in inner-city neighborhoods.
  • From 1998 – 2002, Ebony Magazine was 10 times more likely than People Magazine to have menthol ads.
  • From 1998 – 2006, Magazine ads went from 13 percent of the total ad spending to 76 percent, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
  • In 2012, racial disparities in marketing showed up. Lisa Henriksen, a researcher at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, found the more African American students in the area, the higher the percentage of advertisements for menthol cigarettes.  She also noted that Newports were cheaper near schools with higher numbers of African American students.

Health is No Joke but is it Your Wealth, So Laugh to the Bank

Most people know cigarettes are a serious health hazard and are believed to cause cancer and heart disease.  Chairman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, Philip Gardiner, stated African Americans die disproportionately to cancer-related diseases.

  • Black men have the highest lung cancer mortality rate of any other racial/ethnic group.
  • Statistics state 45,000 African Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses.

African Americans, on average, smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking later in life than White Americans, however Black Americans are more likely (at higher rates) to die from smoking-related diseases.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) noted tobacco is a major contributor to heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

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Chapelle Show


Pearson, J. L., Abrams, D. B., Niaura, R. S., Richardson, A., & Vallone, D. M. (2012). A Ban on Menthol Cigarettes: Impact on Public Opinion and Smokers’ Intention to Quit. American Journal of Public Health, 102(11), e107–e114. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300804

Lawrence D, Rose A, Fagan P, Moolchan ET, Gibson JT, Backinger CL. National patterns and correlates of mentholated cigarette use in the United States. Addiction. 2010;105:13-31.

Giovino GA, Villanti AC, Mowery PD et al. Differential Trends in Cigarette Smoking in the USA: Is Menthol Slowing Progress? Tobacco Control, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2013-051159, August 30, 2013 [cited 2017 Oct 27].


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