Police put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold for selling cigarettes on a New York City street corner. George Floyd was killed by police outside a store in Minneapolis known as “the best place to buy menthols.” Black smokers overwhelmingly prefer menthol brands such as Kool, Salem, and Newport. All of this is no coincidence. The disproportionate Black deaths and cries of “I can’t breathe” that ring out in our era—because of police violence, COVID-19, or menthol smoking—are intimately connected to a post-1960s history of race and exploitation.
In Pushing Cool, Keith Wailoo tells the intricate and poignant story of menthol cigarettes for the first time. He pulls back the curtain to reveal the hidden persuaders who shaped menthol buying habits and racial markets across America: the world of tobacco marketers, consultants, psychologists, and social scientists, as well as Black lawmakers and civic groups including the NAACP. Today most Black smokers buy menthols, and calls to prohibit their circulation hinge on a history of the industry’s targeted racial marketing. In 2009, when Congress banned flavored cigarettes as criminal enticements to encourage youth smoking, menthol cigarettes were also slated to be banned. Through a detailed study of internal tobacco industry documents, Wailoo exposes why they weren’t and how they remain so popular with Black smokers.
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In Pushing Cool Keith Wailoo shows how the tobacco industry has over the last century used deception and downright lies to market mentholated cigarettes, first as a "healthy" alternative and then exploiting the largely urban Black population. The story is both fascinating and infuriating. Using the connecting phrase that has become all too common, both in hospitals and in the street, of "I can't breathe" Wailoo illustrates how the tobacco industry, with help (both intentional and unintentional) of government and influencers within the Black community itself (namely Sharpton and Ebony Magazine), placed Blacks in chokeholds every bit as deadly as those used by police officers when they murder. What makes the overall history so compelling is that the tobacco industry didn't suddenly start acting unethically when they targeted Black communities, they started decades before when they first pitched menthol cigarettes as an actual healthy alternative. When they were forced to stop making explicitly incorrect statements they simply used more subtle phrasing to play on the new fears of lung cancer and emphysema. Then, when TV and print ads were terminated, they combined the healthy "feel" of menthol with an onslaught of billboards (largely selling coolness rather than the product itself) to target those already struggling against the system that was stacked against them. While Wailoo's analysis and connecting of the dots makes this read very well, I was most stunned by the many admissions of targeting that advertising and tobacco executives admit to. They treat the act of addicting a vulnerable population as nothing more than clever business as usual. These people were and are evil in just about any way you might choose to define that term. I would recommend this to not only those interested in Black history but US history in general and especially cultural history where business and culture meet. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.