Black health experts want to leverage growing awareness of racial inequality into a fight against cigarettes.

Lung cancer kills black men at higher rates than any other group nationwide, and, on Tuesday, a group of health experts and activists called for President Barack Obama to ban menthol cigarettes, making a direct link between health and social justice.

The federal government found that four in five black smokers have smoked menthols, as The New York Times reports. The mint flavoring makes quitting more difficult and has increased dependence, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] said in 2013.

But it didn’t halt sales.

From the Times:

While smoking rates have been declining across the nation, rates for menthol cigarette use among those 18 to 25 climbed to 16 percent in 2010, from 13 percent in 2004, according to a 2011 federal report. From 2008 to 2010, about 57 percent of youth smokers used menthol cigarettes, according to Truth Initiative, an antismoking research group.

In Allegheny County, 35 percent of black adults are smokers, compared to 22 percent of white adults, according to a 2009 county survey.

“There is quite a disparity there,” said Joyce Petrow, chief operating officer of Tobacco Free Allegheny.

Black men are disproportionately dying here from lung and related cancers, according to a 2012 study from the Allegheny County Health Department.

The age-adjusted rate for cancer of the lungs, trachea and bronchus for black men is 139 per 100,000 in the county. For white men, the rate is 99 per 100,000.

Marketing for menthol cigarettes has for years targeted black communities, Petrow said.

Numerous researchers have found racial disparities.

Rather bluntly, the company that sells Newport menthols (which is now part of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company)  instructed sales reps in the 1980s to “stay out of the suburbs and go into tough inner-city neighborhoods,” according to the Times.

But the link between social justice and anti-smoking hasn’t always been so clear.

As the Times notes, the tobacco industry in the past helped fund groups like the NAACP, though that is no longer the case.

While smoking rates in general have decreased over time across all demographic groups, Petrow said, the racial disparity has existed for decades.

Has that caused harm?

Well, the lung cancer mortality rate in Pennsylvania is about a third higher for black men, compared to white men, Petrow said.

Pennsylvanians smoke at higher percentages than Americans overall.

And Allegheny County outsmokes the state overall.

According to the most recent stats, 23 percent of all local adults identified as smokers, and roughly a third identified as former smokers.

Nationwide, smoking-related illnesses kill 45,000 black people each year.

The FDA, which publicly stated the dangers of menthol cigarettes three years ago, said it continues to look at regulatory options.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

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