The FDA has waged war against e-cigarettes and teen vaping – but US health officials have long overlooked the tobacco product that is getting African American teens hooked: cigarillos.
A single miniature cigar can pack as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes, a trait that’s been widely cited in the myriad criticisms of e-cigarettes.
Marketing campaigns for popular cigarillo brands like Swisher Sweets are every bit as obviously targeted toward young black men and women as e-cigarettes are toward youth in general.
Sweet flavors are disproportionately popular among the African American population, and the FDA banned flavors other than menthol in cigarettes a decade ago and, last year, promised to look into banning menthol, too.
Still, sales of cigarillos and small flavored cigars increased from 2011 to 2015, and cigarillo use among young black adults has even reached ‘epidemic proportions’ according to recent research.
But the products have remained quiet killers of black Americans, and overlooked by prevention campaigns and regulations.
Popular cigarillo maker Swisher Sweets Instagram account features attractive young black people smoking its products – not unlike the maligned Juul ad campaigns did with white teens
The sweet cigarillo maker even has an ‘Artists’ Project, featuring celebrities like Cardi B (pictured) who performed at their event in New Orleans, Louisina in 2017
The smokers featured on the Instagram accounts of Swisher Sweets and Dutch Masters cigars are almost all young, attractive and black.
Most of the posts are not quite as highly produced as the ones you might have seen on Juul’s Instagram (before it caved to FDA pressure and deactivated the account), but otherwise the images are quite similar.
Except for one glaring difference: most of the Juul models and posters were white, and the faces on Swisher Sweet’s popular account are mostly black.
‘It’s very similar to why, back in the 60s and 70s, there was a cocaine epidemic affecting African American communities. Nobody did anything. In fact, they said it was our fault,’ says president of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN), Delmonte Jefferson.
Instagram posts from cigarillo brands like Swisher Sweets use young, attractive black models and pop culture references, like the Beyonce lyric, ‘who run the world?’ to attract teens
Even the aesthetics of some cigarillo promotional materials, like this Swisher Sweet Instagram post, resemble the pop-y colors used in Juul ads
Then history repeated itself with the opioid epidemic.
‘Now that the opioid epidemic is affecting white people, we’re spending billions of dollars on it and all your Congress people, Senators and even your President are talking about it,’ says Jefferson.
Tobacco companies carefully choose which populations each of their products will be most successful with and target those groups with their advertising.
Juuls sell for a high price point. The starter kit is $50, and each pack of four e-liquid refills sells for $16, before taxes.
‘Because of how expensive they are, they are not products that the African American population is looking at,’ says Jefferson.
‘If the price came down drastically, we would start seeing more marketing toward African Americans.’
Swish Sweets’s photoshoots feature models not only smoking its cigarillos but wearing the company’s apparel
Rapper Charles Bryan (pictured) performed at Swisher Sweets’s New Orleans event where the company posted warnings about the dangers of tobacco smoke
Artistically shot Instagram posts are likely to appeal to social media-savvy black teens
Cigarillo and mini cigar companies, on the other hand, market heavily to African Americans, especially young people, in urban areas.
Convenience stores and smoke shops in inner-city and predominantly black neighborhoods often carry brands like Dutch Masters and Black and Mild, advertising them with large poster featuring rappers and other celebrities idolized by black youth.
‘When someone markets to you, and they do it heavily and effectively – don’t forget, these guys are slick and they know their business – that population winds up susceptible to that product,’ Jefferson says.
Little cigar and cigarillo makers have also recognized and embraced a cultural trend among black Americans of using their products to roll blunts, which combine tobacco and marijuana.
The potently sweet tobacco and cigar paper help to mask the smell of marijuana.
Combined with marijuana, or on their own, smoking the little cigars is every bit as damaging to lung and oral health as cigarettes or e-cigarettes are, but – just as has been the case with drug epidemics – health officials have not gotten involved as long as the problem has been relatively isolated to African American populations.
‘It’s the same old story with cigarillos and menthols, African Americans are still smoking them,’ Jefferson says.
Just as the FDA has promised to look into banning menthol, but warned it could be up to a decade before they make a definitive ban, Jefferson doubts there will be any meaningful moves from the agency regarding little cigarettes any time soon.
Instead, he and the NAATPN advocate for local governments to ban the sale of menthols, cigars and cigarillos, circumventing health regulations and following the lead of cities like San Francisco, where it’s illegal to sell mentholated cigarettes.
‘These products need to be banned – cigars, little cigars, cigarillos – they need to be banned just like other products,’ Jefferson says.