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Public Culture 15.2 (2003) 295-322

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"Come Up to the Kool Taste":
African American Upward Mobility and the Semiotics of Smoking Menthols

Sarah S. Lochlann Jain


Although most often considered with alcohol in policy debates, tobacco more readily compares with sugar or coffee in its ubiquitous and continual availability (and until recently, acceptability) to all classes. The intimate pleasures of the cigarette—from the flip-top box to the smoker's perfected flick of an ash to the excuse to ask a stranger for a light—should not be underestimated. The cigarette's social rituals have made it truly iconic of popular culture throughout the twentieth century. Consider its adaptability: readily slipped into a pocket or behind an ear, it is a means to a private or social moment. Useful as a lift or a sedative, the cigarette stands in as a snack, prop, drug, or coping mechanism. The [End Page 295] commodity achieves its most refined, profitable, and complete incarnation in the cigarette, with its inexpensive, efficient, but short-lived gratification. Consumed nearly completely, literally disappearing into a puff of smoke (the butt easily disposed of under a shoe), the cigarette's solitary fault lies in the fact that, over time, the cumulative effects of its debris slowly and irrevocably sicken and kill its consuming host.

In the legal framing of capitalism in the United States, this one flaw—that cigarettes injure when used as intended—should be enough to not only regulate the cigarette but also ban it outright. In the United States, product liability law is the imperfect but established infrastructure by which Americans can claim their right not to be injured by the objects they purchase. But despite three decades of litigation, it is only since the late 1990s that people have been able to consider themselves injured by cigarettes in the legal sense. This change is due to the work of a recent wave of litigants who have shown successfully that tobacco corporations falsely advertised, defectively designed, and knowingly sold an addictive product. Although dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 2001, one of the most interesting of the recent spate of lawsuits was brought in Pennsylvania on behalf of black smokers. In this suit, Brown v. Philip Morris, Inc., the Reverend Jesse Brown attempted to highlight the economic racism of cigarette marketing through a civil rights claim. The Brown complaint stated that "[the] Defendants have for many years targeted African Americans and their communities with specific advertising to lure them into using mentholated tobacco products." 1 Brown raised the issues of niche marketing, discrimination, and the "staggering loss of life, premature disability, disease, illness, and economic loss" that have resulted from "the Tobacco Companies' intentional and racially discriminating fraudulent course of misconduct." 2

The Brown complaint contended that mentholated cigarettes (also known as menthols) contained enhanced dangers over other cigarettes. First, the complaint explained that the ingredient menthol contains compounds such as benzopyrene, which are carcinogenic when smoked. Second, it argued that mentholated cigarettes contain higher nicotine and tar levels than nonmentholated versions.Third, Brown claimed that menthol encourages deeper and longer inhalation of tobacco smoke, increasing the addictive properties of the cigarette and decreasing the lung's ability to rid itself of carcinogenic components of smoke. According to evidence [End Page 296] submitted in Brown, mentholated cigarettes account for between 60 and 75 percent of the cigarettes smoked by African Americans—and 90 percent of African American youth who smoke, smoke menthols. 3 Thus, Brown claimed, as a result of the increased danger of mentholated cigarettes and "a conspiracy of deception and misrepresentation against the African American public," African Americans have disproportionately suffered the injury, disability, and death that invariably follow from smoking mentholated cigarettes.

It is clear that cigarettes have had a devastating impact on the African American community: tobacco smoking is the number one killer and disabler of African Americans. It results in more deaths among black Americans than homicide, car accidents, drug abuse, and...


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