Menthol Tobacco Used to Prey on Youth

Everybody knows smoking is bad for you. But have you ever thought about how menthol-flavored cigarettes are potentially more dangerous than regular ones? Especially for young people and some minority groups?

LaTrisha Vetaw, health policy and advocacy manager at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in North Minneapolis, tells us why:

“With menthol, it’s easier to start,  but a lot harder to quit. It has a more cooling sensation – something called the ‘throat hit’ – that gets people more and more addicted. And its primary target market is youth,  African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community. It’s an addiction that is both costly and health-hazardous,” Vetaw said. “A menthol cigarette addiction can cost a family or household $400 a month.”

LaTrisha Vetaw
LaTrisha Vetaw is a health policy and advocacy manager at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in North Minneapolis.

NorthPoint is a multi-specialty health center and human service agency in North Minneapolis. It works to improve physical and socioeconomic health throughout the community. Vetaw has spent years working to change tobacco policies, especially those related to the sale of menthol cigarettes.

“I’ve worked there for 12 years on tobacco policies,” she said. “We’ve seen the numbers in our state reduced significantly for youth, adult and  African-American use.”

Vetaw’s work revolves around reversing the effects of tobacco use among youth and in minority communities.

“When you look at the history of tobacco, you understand that certain groups have been targeted by the tobacco industry,” she said.

According to Truth Initiative, a national nonprofit organization that fights tobacco use, “54 percent of current smokers in high school and 48.4 percent of current smokers in middle school smoked menthols.”

Some youth start smoking because of societal pressure, because it’s a fad or because they’re exposed to secondhand smoke.

Vetaw believes that society has pushed an idea of smoking that isn’t accurate.

“I don’t know why, but as a society we think it’s cool and it’s cute and it’s glamorous, and then it’s kind of like edgy if you can get the cigarettes,” she said. Her advocacy emphasizes that menthol tobacco shouldn’t be seen as cool,  and that people need to be aware of its true dangers.

The Freedom to Breathe Act (FTB) is a Minnesota law passed in 2007 that restricts smoking in public places.

“One of the big first policies I worked on was Freedom to Breathe. That was huge,” Vetaw said. “The whole bar and restaurant industry [said that it] was going to shut down if we stopped people from smoking indoors. It turns out quite the opposite was true. We saw a huge reduction in adult smoking.”

Vetaw has young people helping out in the community, spreading the message of how tobacco is hurting minorities. Two young men who work with her are Derrall Pratt and Harrison Lucas.

Speaking from the youth perspective, I think it’s opened up my eyes to how we can make an impact in our city or even our own individual communities,” Pratt said.

Adds Lucas: “I wouldn’t have known about the effects of tobacco. It’s important to know about all the negative effects, because if you know the negative effects you won’t start those bad habits.”

Tobacco 21 is a policy that Minneapolis and St. Paul have adopted, making the legal age to buy cigarettes  21 instead of 18. So far, 11 Minnesota cities have raised the age. Vetaw’s goal with Tobacco 21 is to get more people on board to help spread it all over Minnesota.

“We’re working on policies throughout the state, hopefully to gain some momentum and have a statewide Tobacco 21 law – at least for menthol products,” she says. Suburban cities in the Twin Cities metro area are an immediate target.

Vetaw has such a passion for her work that it shines through in everything she says and does. “I don’t run around telling people, ‘Look what I did,’” she said. “But when I go into a store and I don’t see menthol, I do think, ‘That’s good.’”