Keith Wailoo on Racial Marketing and the Rise of Menthol Cigarettes

Recently, on March 24, 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it had authorized several tobacco-flavored vaping products made by the Japanese-owned Logic Technology Development, LLC, while denying authorization for several others. The announcement comes as part of a sweeping, years’ long effort to expand regulation of tobacco products, including in regards to e-cigarettes.[1] Very soon, possibly this month, the FDA is expected to make another announcement, this one pertaining to menthol products. Like vaping, menthol cigarettes first gained traction due to their association, albeit somewhat questionable, with having therapeutic, even health properties. In pushing menthol cigarettes, tobacco companies and marketers benefited from menthol’s ability to deceive, tricking the brain by creating the sensation of coolness, without actually reducing the mouth’s temperature. Deception is at the center of the history of menthol cigarettes as told by this month’s guest Keith Wailoo. In his recent book, Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette. In the bok, Wailoo sheds light on the web of actors involved in the researching and marketing of menthol cigarettes, including, since the 1960s, to Black Americans in particular. In 2020, George Floyd was killed by police outside a store in Minneapolis known as “the best place to buy menthols.” In the process of detailing the history of menthol cigarettes, Wailoo ties together the history of tobacco companies targeting of Black smokers and the disproportionate number of Black deaths at the hands of police violence, COVID-19, and other forms of racial violence and exploitation, giving new meaning to the all too common cry: “I can’t breathe.” 

Check out the episode here!

Keith Wailoo is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. His books include Dying in the City of the BluesHow Cancer Crossed the Color Line, Pain: A Political History, and, most recently, Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette. In 2021 he, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other, won the Dan David Prize for his “influential body of historical scholarship focused on race, science, and health equity; on the social implications of medical innovation; and on the politics of disease” and was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

[1] Laurie McGinley, “FDA permits another e-cigarette, pledges decisions soon on big brands,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2022,


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