While many organizations and people contributed to the FDA finally issuing a draft rule to get rid of menthol in cigarettes and flavors in cigars, the one at the top of my list is the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and the “three musketeers of menthol,” Valerie Yerger, Carol McGruder and Phil Gardiner. This day would not have happened without their tenacity, skill, and organizing going back to before the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA authority over tobacco as a consumer product in 2009.
In particular, Valerie Yerger’s seminal 2002 paper, “African American leadership groups: smoking with the enemy,” used previously secret tobacco industry documents to illuminate how Big Tobacco bought off key African American organizations to keep them quiet while the industry built its Black customer base with menthol. This paper started the long process, led by AATLC, that eventually led to the fact that many key African American Organizations, most notably the NAACP, are now supporting the menthol ban.
This does not mean that the tobacco companies have stopped buying allies in the African American community, most notably Al Sharpton. But they are minority voices that are only getting attention because of the huge PR machine in the shadows behind them. The fact that the tobacco industry’s role in generating opposition plays prominently in the news coverage of the FDA proposed rule is key to maintaining support for FDA action.
I have not yet had time to digest the FDA’s proposed rules and will have more to say about the details later. But today I wanted to celebrate AATCLC for moving the ball forward. By being leaders not only on the FDA, but on local and state bans on selling flavored tobacco products, they have already saved a lot of lives, and not just Black lives.