State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (photo: @bradhoylman)
For decades, Big Tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds have insidiously pushed menthol cigarettes onto our most vulnerable communities, perhaps most infamously with Black Americans. Menthol cigarettes are mint-flavored and highly addictive because they soothe the throat and mask the harshness of regular cigarettes. As a result of tenacious advertising and marketing campaigns, today 85% of all Black smokers smoke menthols compared to just 29% of whites.
What is less known, however, is that in the 1990s Big Tobacco companies began targeting queer communities with menthol-flavored products as well. On the heels of the AIDS epidemic that took the lives of a hundred thousand LGBTQ+ men, Big Tobacco sought to take advantage of the emerging LGBTQ+ market and started directly marketing towards the communities. Masquerading as allies, Big Tobacco companies advertised at pride festivals and other LGBTQ+ community events and even contributed financially to local and national LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS organizations. Internally, R.J. Reynolds’ marketing campaign was called “Project SCUM” (Sub-Culture Urban Marketing), showing us how they really feel about the queer people they’re profiting from.
As with communities of color, Big Tobacco’s advertising machine paid off. Smoking rates are generally higher in the LGBTQ+ communities: 1 in 6 LGBTQ+ adults smoke cigarettes, compared to about 1 in 8 non-LGBTQ+ adults. Even more worrisome are the smoking rates among LGBTQ+ youth. In 2021, 17.4% of LGBTQ high school students used tobacco products, compared with just 11.4% of their cis-heterosexual peers.
Menthol-flavored products are more prevalent in our communities as well: 36 percent of LGBTQ+ smokers report smoking menthol cigarettes, compared to 29 percent of non-LGBTQ+ smokers. Much of this data comes from the 2009-2010 National Adult Tobacco Survey, the last major effort to research LGTBQ+ tobacco use. Many health experts theorize that the numbers may be even higher since many people may not have been out at the time.
Big Tobacco is using the same playbook to kill LGBTQ+ folks as they have done for decades with the Black and Latino communities. By banning menthol-flavored products in New York State, as proposed in Governor Hocul’s executive budget and our bill S2441/A3907, we’d go a long way to stopping thousands of people from smoking and thousands more from even picking up the habit in the first place.
Big Tobacco, of course, isn’t going down easy – while profiting off the harm of communities of color and LGBTQ+ communities, both groups with a difficult history with policing, they’ve spread misinformation about local law enforcement’s role in enforcing the proposed menthol ban.
Let’s be clear: our bill explicitly prohibits the NYPD or any local law enforcement agency to make arrests for unregulated individual purchase, use, or possession of any kind of cigarette – just as they do now with flavored e-cigarettes. To avoid adding police presence to already overpoliced communities, we will only pass a bill that makes the lack of law enforcement crystal clear. Big Tobacco’s most recent misinformation campaign that says otherwise is just one more example of how low they will stoop to keep their profits up.
In the last century, the government callously ignored a major health crisis in queer communities by turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic. But today, while 13,000 Americans die from AIDS each year, more than 700,000 die from smoking-related deaths. We must end this needless suffering. It’s time to ban menthol and protect thousands of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers from the greed of predatory tobacco companies.
Dr. Scout is the Executive Director of the National LGBT Cancer Network and the principal investigator of both the CDC-funded LGBTQ tobacco-related cancer disparity network and Out: The National Cancer Survey. Brad Hoylman-Sigal is a Democratic State Senator from Manhattan. On Twitter @scoutout & @cancerLGBT & @bradhoylman.