The success of Spud caught the attention of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, which launched its own menthol brand, Kool, in 1932. Kool was initially targeted to upscale smokers; the brand's mascot was a cartoon penguin sporting a monocle and top hat. And menthol smokes really took off in 1956, when R.J. Reynolds introduced Salem, the first filter-tipped menthol cigarette.
Neither the filter nor the menthol protected smokers from the harmful effects of cigarettes, but tobacco companies shamelessly promoted menthol cigarettes as being somehow "fresher," and, by implication, healthier. In the early '70s, Salem print ads touted the brand's "natural" menthol. "That's what gives Salem a taste as soft and fresh as Springtime," the ads declared. Later, the makers of menthol Newport began a long-running campaign touting the brand as being "Alive with Pleasure."
Today, about 30 percent of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. are flavored with menthol. (Oddly, only two countries in the world have higher rates of menthol cigarette use¬—the Philippines and Cameroon.) And since the 1960s, menthol cigarette consumption in the U.S. has had a distinctly racial component. Currently, 80 percent of African American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and blacks are four times more likely than whites to choose menthols.
No one really knows how African Americans came to prefer menthol cigarettes in the first place. But relentlessly targeted marketing campaigns locked the preference in place, part of what Phillip Gardiner, a research scientist at the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program at the University of California calls the "African-Americanization of menthol cigarette use."
"Menthol cigarettes have been marketed to some of the most vulnerable segments of the population," Gardiner says. "For half a century, people with the least resources and the most to lose have been the target of this product."
Internal tobacco company research in the early 1950s showed a slight preference for menthol Kools among African American smokers, and firms quickly capitalized by marketing menthol smokes directly to blacks. African American baseball player Elston Howard was an early spokesman for menthol Kools in the late 1950s. "You feel a new smoothness deep in your throat," proclaimed ads featuring Howard, a star catcher for the New York Yankees.
In the late 1970s, the makers of Newport used the James Brown hit "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to trumpet the message "Newport is a whole new bag of menthol smoking." Later, the Kool Jazz Festival and hip-hop concerts were used to promote menthols among African Americans. Menthol smokes soon acquired an edgy urban quality—a dangerous smoke. "Smokin' mad Newports/'cause I'm due in court," the Notorious B.I.G. rapped on his 1994 hit "Everyday Struggle." The FDA advisory committee report notes the longstanding popularity of menthol among African Americans, but skirts the issue of how that preference came to be.