Updated: Aug 13
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).
The superb historian of medicine Keith Wailoo has just written Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette (online book talk here). With this fifth monograph, Wailoo places a capacious 20th-century frame around a culturally and economically significant drug—just as he did around opiates in Pain: A Political History (2015). For those of us in the subfield of alcohol & drugs history, both books offer unique insights from a gifted researcher with deep experience writing about the impact of race on health by way of institutions. In Pain, those institutions mostly are public and federal, from the camera-ready 1980s “Just Say No”-style prohibition campaigns to quieter efforts to deny opiates to Medicaid patients—including combat-injured veterans—with chronic pain.
But in Pushing Cool, the institutions are tobacco companies, along with the Madison Avenue firms they hire to pry open particular demographic segments and make them smokers. Wailoo identifies 1964 as the start of an aggressive campaign to attract urban Black consumers to menthol cigarettes, a charge led by Brown & Williamson’s Kool but soon attracting dozens of other menthol brands.
The year 1964 also saw a serious federal effort to investigate tobacco and its users’ health. The Public Health Service of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued Smoking and Health, a committee report that compiled the health effects of tobacco use from all available scientific studies. The news was very bad for smokers and tobacco firms. In particular, the link to cancer was strong and indisputable.
Some smokers quit; others switched to what they perceived as healthier alternatives, such as filtered cigarettes or menthols. Menthols had long been presented by tobacco firms as healthier because they seemed to soothe and cool the throat while smoked. But the tobacco industry’s claims that menthols were a healthy alternative could not stand up to the actual health outcomes of smoking.
As Congress discussed how to discourage young people from taking up cigarette smoking—among other tobacco regulations—tobacco firms pivoted hard away from their previous focus on young smokers and women as potential menthol markets. The replacement was urban Black consumers. Using tobacco industry documents collected at Stanford, Wailoo details the crassly racialized approach of advertisers, who created psychological profiles of Black men and Black women and then crafted images to appeal to those stereotypes.
A number of accidental factors enabled success for Kool, even after federal regulations insisted that companies remove advertising references to the health benefits of menthols and add a warning label. The new menthol markets were urban, and Black neighborhoods were growing denser in the 1960s with continued migration from rural areas. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a culmination of a long-running movement wherein Black citizens often expressed political power through consumption.
These increasing claims to equality, Wailoo writes, directed big tobacco’s unfortunate attention to the spending power of Black consumers. In 1970, the federal government banned cigarette commercials from television and radio, resulting in a massive and rapid expansion of advertising on billboards and posters. Segregated Black communities were a captive audience, though, and it was difficult to move out. There is much more to learn from Pushing Cool, such as how Black newspapers relied heavily on cigarette advertising revenues and were therefore not friendly to criticism of the tobacco industry.
However, I’m lingering on the inflection point of 1964 in order to take a quick look at one tobacco critic in particular: Samuel Carter McMorris, a civil rights lawyer from California by way of Columbus, Ohio, who won two Supreme Court Cases including 1962’s Robinson v. California that held punishing addiction as a crime was unconstitutional. If McMorris had hated anything more than tobacco, it would probably have been police brutality or drug laws.
In November 1964, McMorris wrote a feature article titled “Tobacco is a Narcotic” for Life and Health, a general magazine published by Seventh Day Adventist Church. (It ran below a feature on Senator Barry Goldwater.) I’m not sure whether McMorris was a worshipper, but Adventists have always scorned tobacco; quitting the pipe is a key part of the sect’s founding narrative. And a large-scale publishing arm of the church, founded in Mountain View, California, around the turn of the 20th century, produced literature devoted to tee-totalism for at least a century.
A page from Life and Health: The National Health Journal, November 1964.
At any rate, McMorris was not impressed with the government’s response to Smoking and Health. “A series of cruel hoaxes is being foisted unintentionally or otherwise upon the American people in the wake of the Surgeon General’s report,” he wrote. “Rationalization and understatement are trying to frustrate the benefits from this exposure of the viciousness of the nicotine habit.”
A House committee controlled by tobacco-producing states had suggested investing millions in developing a low-nicotine tobacco, which, he wrote, “makes as much sense as would a proposal to dealcohol whisky. … [M]any cigarette smokers who have begun using filters, which keep out a small part of these harmful ingredients, find themselves ‘smoking more and enjoying it less’ in order to consume the amount of nicotine their habits require.”
For McMorris, who had defended a number of drug users in court, nicotine was more akin to opiates than to any other drug; addiction was the defining attribute of a narcotic. “I often have noted with a wry smile the self-righteousness of jurors deliberating in a room filled with the smoke of one narcotic, the dire fate of the purveyor of another, usually heroin,” he wrote. Proper solutions to the tobacco problem included regulation to prevent the “false advertising of this dangerous narcotic as being in any way beneficial or desirable”; anti-tobacco education; and anti-tobacco advertising. However, “we should eliminate all thought of resorting to the method of forcing people by law to adopt a particular code of private moral conduct.”
Pushing Cool by Keith Wailoo.
The real barrage of racially coded cigarette advertising did not even begin until the year after McMorris’s anti-tobacco article was published, but, from his civil rights and anti-drug-law activism, he well knew the trouble that addictive drugs could cause in his community. For decades, though, tobacco advertisements continued to be racially coded, with corporations employing novel psychological methods of targeting consumers and selling them goods. (Women, too, were profiled by some cigarette brands). Pushing Cool documents many of the people and institutions who either enabled or who have fought against deceptive menthol cigarette marketing.
I was surprised to learn how recently the FDA had assumed control of tobacco regulation (not until 2009), but I understand its efforts to reduce cigarette smoking have worked well. Perhaps we can use our historical understanding about regulatory schemes for drugs like tobacco or alcohol (laid out in books like Pushing Cool) and, in the near term, apply this knowledge to improve the newly emerging cannabis and psychedelic drug markets. Over the long term, we should also use our historical knowledge about the racialized marketing (not to mention the regulation and the enforcement) of harmful drugs to work toward a more just and reciprocal economic world.