An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has revealed that Detroit Pastor Rev. Horace Sheffield, a prominent Black civil rights activist, was offered as much as $250,000 to speak out against the proposed federal menthol ban in the United States (U.S.).
Back in May 2022, Rev. Sheffield had written an editorial in support of the Food and Drug Administration’s menthol ban, stating that it would “stem the tide of preventable disease and death.” Soon afterwards, the pastor was approached by an individual who claimed to be representing R J Reynolds tobacco company. The individual stated that the company would like to offer Sheffield money to publicly change his opinion.
This is especially nefarious for several reasons: firstly, a massive 85% of Black people who smoke in the U.S., smoke menthol cigarettes precisely because the tobacco industry has targeted its these products at Black communities for decades by developing ties with virtually every Black leadership group and blanketing Black-majority neighbourhoods with menthol marketing. For example, Truth Initiative researchers who published their findings in Tobacco Control, found that in Washington DC, in predominantly Black neighbourhoods there were up to ten times more tobacco ads than in areas with fewer Black residents. Secondly, approximately 39,000 Black Americans die from tobacco-related cancers each year, a much higher death rate than that of other racial and ethnic groups. Thirdly, Black civil rights organisations have been found to receive much less in charitable donations that their white counterparts and are often in dire need of funds to continue their work which makes such organisations vulnerable to exploitative funding offers. Fourth, 44% of Black smokers in the U.S. say they would attempt to quit smoking if menthol cigarettes were banned.
In addition, in a bid to keep selling their popular menthol products, tobacco companies are framing the menthol ban as a Black Lives Matter issue, suggesting that banning menthol is racist. When the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) first announced the ban, tobacco companies sponsored media content suggesting the ban would lead to further conflict between the police and the Black community. The police do not enforce tobacco control legislation, so this is a disingenuous attempt by the industry to use pre-existing tensions to their advantage.
Upon learning about the effort to buy this Black faith leader’s position, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council’s (AATCLC) Co-Chair, Dr Philip Gardiner responded:
Following the publication of his editorial in favour of the menthol ban in the Detroit Free Press, the Rev. Sheffield was initially offered $80,000 to $100,000 to speak out against the menthol ban – the BIJ reported that it has seen a message verifying this offer. In a follow up phone conversation Sheffield alleges that this offer increased to between $200,000 and $250,000 and potentially even more if he was willing to say specifically that ‘I thought about it, I’m on the wrong side.” Sheffield turned the offer down. He is now calling on others who are in a similar position to speak out. “I think you ought to come forward, share with us how you were approached, how much money they offered you, what they expected in return.”
This expose is damning for R J Reynolds. The company has not responded to any requests from the BIJ about whether the person offering the funds is working for R J Reynolds.
Why ban menthol?
A previous BMJ Tobacco Control blog summarised the evidence.
In addition to disproportionately targeting Black communities:
Menthol increases smoking uptake and makes it harder to quit.
The anaesthetic effects of menthol in cigarettes enable smokers to inhale cigarette smoke more deeply into the lungs, thereby increasing exposure to the harmful substances in tobacco smoke. Paradoxically, the cool, numbing properties of menthol may contribute to the common, but inaccurate, perception of menthol cigarettes as less harmful than non-menthol cigarettes. This facilitates uptake of smoking and makes it harder to quit.
Menthol appeals to youth.
In the United States, menthol smoking is highest amongst young people aged 12 to 17, who are more likely to continue smoking and experience greater nicotine dependence than young non-menthol smokers. Despite a global decline in smoking, the number of young people smoking menthol cigarettes has not decreased.