For Alonda Barrie, her 73-year-old mother and 52-year-old brother, smoking menthol cigarettes is a family affair. All three have been smokers for years, and like many smokers in the African American community, they choose menthols.
Now, with the new ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products ̶ including menthol cigarettes ̶ in the City of Sacramento, the family is working collectively to quit.
“I don’t like regular-flavored cigarettes,” said Barrie, 53. “But I sometimes get out of breath. I want to quit because it will be better for me.”
A patient at UC Davis Health, Alonda has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, in which airflow in the lungs is obstructed, making it harder to breathe. Doctors also found a benign lesion on her lung, scaring her and giving her even more reason to quit.
City sales ban decision informed by UC Davis Health experts
The ban, which took effect Jan. 1, was adopted by the City Council after testimony from several experts, including UC Davis primary care physician and tobacco expert Elisa Tong. The council also was provided with a white paper on the subject produced by a panel of UC Davis and community health after a roundtable event at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center in March 2019.
Tong said the addition of menthol flavoring to tobacco makes smoking easier to initiate and harder to quit. She said there is a growing body of evidence that the additive may itself be carcinogenic. And even as some companies have stopped producing fruit flavored tobacco products that may appeal to children, they continue to produce and market menthol-flavored products.
“Just like a tax motivates people think about quitting, community policies can really affect individuals and families supporting each other for behavior change,” said Tong, who met Barrie at the medical center and provided her information to help her family quit.
Tobacco industry has longtime ties to African American organizations
Kimberly Bankston Lee is the senior program director for the Saving Our Legacy (SOL) project, which advocates for healthy, smoke-free communities for African Americans and other populations who suffer disproportionately as a result of social conditions and tobacco use. She took part in the roundtable discussion and effort to ban flavored tobacco in Sacramento.
She said the tobacco industry has long marketed menthol tobacco products to African Americans, including giving large African American organizations funding through corporate sponsorships. Low-income African American neighborhoods, too, tend to be oversaturated with tobacco stores. African American men have the highest rates of lung cancer in the U.S.
“We look at it as a social justice issue,” Bankston Lee said. She noted that in 2009 the Food and Drug Administration required tobacco companies to remove other flavors like vanilla and spice from cigarettes but allowed them to continue producing menthol products.
“Why did they exclude menthol?” she asked. “It has to do with the long-standing relationship of the African American community and the tobacco industry.”
Bankston Lee is hopeful that more people, like Barrie and her family, will be motivated to quit with the new ban in place.
“Anytime we can limit the availability of tobacco we reduce the incidence of smoking,” she said. “We will have increased quit attempts and a decrease in prevalence.”
For her part, Barrie said she is smoking just one or two cigarettes a day. “I don’t smoke that often, but I plan on getting down to nothing.”