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New report details tobacco industry marketing to vulnerable groups

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Suzanne Potter

(California News Service) A new report from Stanford University finds tobacco companies continue to directly target African Americans, women, and young people with their advertising, creating a larger market for a product which has been linked for years to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

It comes as efforts are underway at the state and federal levels to remove menthol cigarettes from the market.

Dr. Robert K. Jackler, professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the report's lead author, said the preference among the targeted groups for menthol cigarettes is the product of a concerted campaign. 

"Urban heavily Black-populated areas got carpeted by billboards and signs in store windows, discount coupons," Jackler explained. "The companies would have vans that would give out free samples of cigarettes in poor neighborhoods."

In 2020, the California Legislature prohibited most flavored tobacco products, but the law was put on hold when the industry gathered signatures to force a referendum. In November, voters will consider Proposition 31, which upholds the restrictions. And the industry is funding the "No on 31" campaign, arguing blocking adults from buying menthol products would lead to a drop in sales-tax revenue and create an illegal market, increasing crime.

Jackler predicted voters will pass the ballot initiative, reaffirming the California Legislature's intention to remove most forms of flavored tobacco from the market.

"The tobacco industry is very cynical," Jackler asserted. "They used the initiative petition to buy a couple of more years of profit off of California. They knew they were going to lose this, I think, in the election."

The report finds tobacco companies market menthol to youth because it makes it easier to smoke, masking the taste and numbing the throat. It also noted menthol encourages deeper inhalation and thus, greater exposure to nicotine.

Dr. Jessica Sims, medical director of managed care at UCLA Health and an American Heart Association volunteer expert, thinks removing menthol cigarettes and flavored vaping products from the market will improve public health.

"Nicotine itself has been demonstrated to cause permanent harm to the teenage brain that's still developing," emphasized. "It causes difficulties with attention and memory, and can impact someone's trajectory in life."

In April, the FDA proposed to remove menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market but no final rule has been issued. In 2009, Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which prohibited all flavors other than tobacco and menthol in cigarettes.