Menthol cigarettes are having a disproportionate negative impact on the health of the Twin Cities African American community. Yet new evidence suggests that many among this population don’t realize the harmful effects that menthol is having on them.
A new grassroots health initiative aims to change this and to encourage members of the community to come up with appropriate health protective solutions. “Menthol-flavored cigarettes are a concern to us because they can mask the harshness of cigarette smoke and mislead people into thinking they are not as harmful,” said Gene Nichols of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF) in Minneapolis and project manager of this innovative initiative.
“We’re very concerned about menthol making it easier for youth to start smoking and harder for anyone to quit,” Nichols said. Gathering the voice of the community to understand the extent of the issue locally was an essential first step of the project.
A baseline survey was conducted in mid-2016 among 407 U.S.-born African Americans in Hennepin and Ramsey counties to measure community knowledge and awareness about the harms of menthol flavored cigarettes — at church gatherings and community meetings and through door-to-door canvassing in predominantly African American neighborhoods. Results were further validated through interviews with respected leaders from the faith-based, community organizing, business and philanthropic sectors.
“We made sure to collect statistically valid data from the local African American community,” said Nichols, who also serves as co-chair of AALF’s Health and Wellness Group. “But we’re also making sure to connect with the recognized leaders across all sectors of the community — the folks already engaged in finding solutions that improve the lives of their community members.
“This key informant process is fully engaging community members to assure alignment of the menthol issue in their community and to help identify change agents who now can educate the community about menthol.”
The survey found that Twin Cities African Americans believe menthol tobacco is a serious threat to their health, that the tobacco industry has heavily targeted them with menthol tobacco marketing, and that they support new laws to reduce tobacco’s harm in their community. The survey also found:
- 84 percent of respondents who smoke use menthol-flavored products.
- 88 percent of respondents said tobacco use remains a significant health issue in their community.
- 86 percent of respondents supported increased laws to restrict the harm of smoking (among non-smokers, 91 percent; among smokers, 69 percent).
- Surveyed smokers were attracted to menthol products because they taste and feel different than other types of cigarettes.
- 69 percent of smokers agreed that menthol’s cooling sensation makes it easier for young people to start.
- 83 percent of surveyed smokers get their cigarettes at gas stations or convenience stores, locations commonly visited on a regular basis.
- 61 percent of respondents agree menthol cigarettes are marketed to African Americans more than other racial groups.
- 57 percent of surveyed smokers noticed coupons for cigarettes in the past 30 days.
“We’ve gained valuable insight into the perceptions of menthol tobacco among the African American community,” said Nichols. “This effort lays the groundwork for what lies ahead. It will serve as a basis for community engagement and education in the second phase of the grant.”
That second phase, also to be led by AALF, is expected to include a number of educational sessions in the participating cities and counties to raise awareness and engage the local African American community in identifying solutions. The project is supported by a Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) grant required by the Minnesota Legislature to address African American menthol tobacco use.
In addition to the AALF and Hennepin County Public Health, the local partnership also includes the local health departments of Saint Paul-Ramsey County, Minneapolis, Bloomington, Edina and Richfield.
Information provided by the AALF. For more information contact the African American Leadership Forum: Eugene M. Nichols, firstname.lastname@example.org; 651-343-2048.