This year, Women’s History Month comes at a pivotal time – women’s voices and stories are being heard and lifted up in a way they never have before. This opportunity should be celebrated, and gives us a chance to see history in new ways – including stories about things that impact women’s health.
Many may be surprised to know that one of the most critical health issues facing women today are menthol cigarettes. They are a key reason why lung cancer is actually the leading cause of cancer deaths for women in the U.S. In fact, almost twice as many women die from lung cancer than breast cancer, even though breast cancer is more prevalent.
Legendary African American singers, Mary Wells and Sarah Vaughan, had their voices silenced too early and suffered health related issues caused by smoking cigarettes. Mary developed cancer of the larynx because of her smoking habit. She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, lost all of her finances to expensive cancer treatments, and suffered with cancer until she died of pneumonia at age 49.
A longtime smoker, Sarah developed lung cancer and carcinoma of the joints in one hand. Sarah’s amazing contralto voice became huskier after years of smoking, and she died at the age of 66.
It’s important to understand the history behind menthol cigarettes. They were actually created by tobacco companies specifically for women. For decades the tobacco industry advertised and marketed them intentionally and directly to women by showing images of group fun, freedom, and glamour in their marketing.
Unfortunately, it worked. Women are nearly twice as likely as men to smoke menthol cigarettes, and more than 50% of menthol smokers are women. In California, 70% of African American adult cigarette smokers smoke menthol cigarettes compared to only 18% of white adult cigarette smokers.
Research shows that menthol cigarettes are actually worse for the user than regular cigarettes. Menthol makes it easier for smokers to inhale more deeply and allows harmful particles to settle deeper inside the lungs. By reducing airway pain and irritation, continuous menthol smoking can mask the early warning symptoms of smoking-induced respiratory problems. Menthol smokers are also less likely to successfully quit smoking than other smokers.
“Menthol cigarettes are one of the worst, yet not explicitly identified, causes of health problems facing women today,” said Carol McGruder, Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, a Bay Area organization that works to expose and address the inequities in tobacco use and its impact among diverse communities. “It’s a serious problem that gets negligible attention – we need to inform women about what the tobacco industry has done to us.”
The fact that menthol cigarettes are still produced and sold is puzzling. In 2009, the FDA banned the sale of all flavored cigarettes, except menthols – and the tobacco industry has managed to keep them legal since then.
“For those who want to take local action, every county in California has a tobacco control coalition – people can check with their county department of health to learn when and where meetings are held, everyone is welcome. There are also resources available for anyone who is personally affected,” said Ms. McGruder.
Now is the time to break menthols impact on women for good. For anyone who wants help to quit, the California Smoker’s Helpline is at www.nobutts.org or 1-800-NO-BUTTS.