Lorillard Tobacco donated nearly four times as much to Republican candidates as to Democrats in the 2014 congressional elections. No surprise there — most businesses count on Republicans to hold the line on regulations and taxes.
But Lorillard, for decades headquartered in Greensboro, made a striking exception for one set of Democrats: African Americans.
The company gave campaign cash to half of all black members of Congress, as opposed to just one in 38 non-black Democrats, according to an analysis by FairWarning of records from the Center for Responsive Politics.
To put it another way, black lawmakers, all but one of whom are Democrats, were 19 times as likely as their Democratic peers to get a donation.
It’s not difficult to see why. The election campaign overlapped a debate crucial to Lorillard: Whether to add menthol, the minty, throat-numbing additive, to a list of flavorings banned from use in cigarettes in 2009 on public health grounds.
Lorillard’s Newport cigarettes have been the top-selling menthol brand, accounting for billions of dollars in annual sales and a key factor in Reynolds American’s recent purchase of the company.
And who most favors menthols? Black smokers, by a wide margin.
For decades, the tobacco industry has maintained what amounts to an informal mutual-aid pact with some black organizations. Cigarette-makers for years have donated generously to members of the Congressional Black Caucus and to its affiliate, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; to major groups like the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund; and to a host of smaller African American organizations.
In return, some of the groups have helped the tobacco industry fight anti-smoking measures. Other times, critics say, they have simply turned a blind eye to the harmful effects of tobacco on the black community.
Menthol cigarettes, once a niche product, now account for about 30 percent of U.S. cigarette sales. But a study cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that menthols were the choice of 88 percent of black smokers and 57 percent of smokers younger than 18.
The federal Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the landmark 2009 law that authorized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, included a ban on candy, fruit and spice flavorings because of their appeal to young smokers.
But in negotiations that led to adoption of the law, menthol was given a pass. In July 2013, after complaints from public health groups, the FDA put out a call for public comments on whether menthol, too, should be restricted or banned.
FDA remains silent
Several other countries have banned menthol or imposed deadlines for eliminating it. But not a peep has been heard from the FDA since it asked the public to weigh in more than two years ago. This past June, in a display of confidence, Reynolds American of Winston-Salem, which includes R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, completed a merger with Lorillard, paying more than $27 billion for a company that depended on menthols for about 85 percent of sales.
The menthol limbo fits a pattern, according to public health advocates, who say the FDA has been all but paralyzed by excessive caution and, when it has tried to act, by successful legal challenges from the industry.
In November 2011, the agency was blocked in court when it tried to require graphic warning labels on cigarette packs like those in at least 75 countries. And it has yet to complete the rule-making process that would extend its oversight to cigars and e-cigarettes, which are increasingly popular among teens.
The failure to act is “inexcusable,” said Joelle Lester, a staff attorney with the Public Health Law Center in St. Paul, Minn. “Prohibiting menthol in tobacco products should be a very high priority.”
Officials with the FDA declined to be interviewed. A spokesman said in an email that the agency “is continuing to consider regulatory options related to menthol.’’
Banning menthol would be politically difficult under any circumstances, but observers say it will be impossible without strong support from African American leadership groups. And despite support for a ban from some black public-health advocates, African American politicians and organizations have been largely silent.
The National Black Police Association, for instance, began a write-in campaign that brought more than 36,000 comments opposing a ban, according to an FDA document. That group did not respond to interview requests. But John Dixon, a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE, and the police chief in Petersburg, Va., said he thought banning menthol would harm “the minority community, because the majority of menthol smokers are minorities.’’
Dixon added that “prohibitions cause a whole other host of problems,” including an added “burden on law enforcement.” NOBLE lists RAI Services Co., part of Reynolds American, as a current donor. But Dixon said this “would not have any influence, one way or another,’’ on the group’s positions.
A complex relationship
While smoking rates for black and white adults are comparable, blacks suffer higher death rates from tobacco-related ailments, including some types of cancer and cardiovascular disease. According to the CDC, about 47,000 African Americans die annually from smoking-related illnesses, making tobacco use the largest preventable cause of death for black Americans.
Menthols do not appear to be any more toxic than other brands.
“A menthol cigarette is just another cigarette and should be regulated no differently,” said David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds American, in an email to FairWarning.
But health authorities view menthols as a starter product, saying that menthol’s anesthetizing effect helps beginners tolerate the harshness of tobacco smoke, making them more likely to become addicted to nicotine.
“Menthol has no redeeming value other than to make the poison go down more easily,’’ said a report in the American Journal of Public Health.
Led by Philip Morris, the top U.S. cigarette-maker and part of Altria Group, tobacco companies also became charitable pillars of African American cultural, educational and political organizations. In 1987, for instance, Philip Morris donated $2.4 million to more than 180 black, Latino and women’s organizations and local chapters.
Last year, Altria donated $1 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, part of the Smithsonian Institution. During the 2013-14 election cycle, tobacco companies donated $115,650 to black lawmakers and their affiliated PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Lorillard was the most generous, distributing $56,500 to 23 black members (there are 46 total) and related PACs.
The chairman of Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, got $5,000 from Lorillard. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia got $10,000. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina received $2,000 from Lorillard, and his BRIDGE PAC took in $5,000 from Lorillard and $10,000 from Altria.
Shuanise Washington is the president and chief executive officer of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which sponsors leadership training, awards scholarships and hosts an annual legislative conference attended by thousands.
Washington, who declined to comment for this article, is also a past vice president for Altria, which gave the CBCF between $100,000 and $249,000 in both 2013 and 2014, according to the foundation’s website.
Altria spokesman David B. Sutton said the gifts mainly support the foundation’s fellowship and internship programs, reflecting the company’s “long history of focusing on diversity and inclusion.”
In addition, the foundation listed RAI Services, part of Reynolds American, as contributing between $5,000 and $15,000, and cited Altria as a corporate partner at its most recent legislative conference in September.
“How can you talk about health equity when you are sponsored by a killer of public health?” asked anti-tobacco activist Delmonte Jefferson, the executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, a nonprofit group funded by the CDC.
Among Lorillard’s campaign donations was $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, who heads a panel called the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust. At the caucus foundation’s legislative conference, she issued a 144-page report, “Health Disparities in America,’’ on health problems afflicting minority citizens. It included entire sections on childhood obesity, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, lupus, sleep disorders, oral health and gun violence. Tobacco was barely mentioned. Kelly did not respond to interview requests.
“Some self-appointed activists have proposed a legislative ban on menthol cigarettes in a misguided effort to force people to quit smoking by limiting their choices,” the company said in ads in the black press. “The history of African-Americans in this country has been one of fighting against paternalistic limitations and for freedoms.’’
Ultimately, Congress kicked the menthol can down the road. An amendment to the tobacco control act called for the formation of an expert panel, the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, to study and report to the FDA on the public health effects of menthol, “including use among children, African Americans, Hispanics, and other racial/ethnic minorities.”
The panel issued its report in 2011, concluding that “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.’’ The FDA, however, waited two more years before requesting public comments.
Then in July 2014, the agency received a legal setback . A federal judge ruled that the agency could not base any decisions on the advisory panel’s findings. The ruling came in a lawsuit by Reynolds and Lorillard claiming that the FDA had violated ethics laws by appointing experts to the panel who had conflicts of interest for having previously taken anti-tobacco stands.
The decision is under appeal.
The ruling didn’t bar the FDA from acting, because its own staff had prepared a separate report that reached essentially the same conclusions. But for reasons agency officials won’t discuss, nothing has happened since.
“I’m not expecting anything” from the FDA, said Carol McGruder, a co-chairwoman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and one of the activists rebuffed by the NAACP. “I don’t think that they have … the guts.’’