A new exhibition showing the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing of mentholated cigarettes to African Americans, presented by The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, is probably the first in-depth exploration of its kind, according to the center’s director.
The exhibition, “Of Mice and Menthol: The Targeting of African Americans by the Tobacco Industry,” was finalized and uploaded in September to the center’s website. The vast majority of items in the exhibition come from the center’s collection.
Center Director Dr. Alan Blum, the College’s Gerald Leon Wallace, MD, Endowed Chair of Family Medicine, said by the 1960s, mentholated cigarettes “were especially popular among African-Americans, to whom they were heavily marketed.” Menthol is a colorless anesthetic, and in the 1920s it was accidentally discovered that menthol reduced the harshness of smoking, Blum said.
The exhibition includes magazine covers and advertising, some dating to the 1950s, featuring African-American models, performing artists and athletes, including former world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. Blum said tobacco advertising was especially prevalent in Essence and Ebony magazines, which reached more than a third of the adult African-American population.
By 1985, the Task Force on Black and Minority Health of the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that there were 58,000 excess deaths annually among African Americans compared with the death rate for whites, Blum said. “Principal among the rising causes of death were cardiovascular disease and lung cancer – the two major consequences of cigarette smoking,” he said.
Blum said the exhibition was a large scholarly endeavor, taking three years to research and complete.