The City of Big Shoulders: Chicago stands up to Big Tobacco in a big way

by Carol McGruder

The city of Chicago made history when it passed tobacco control legislation in mid-December that will regulate where menthol and other flavored tobacco products can be sold. Their bold ordinance will create a flavored tobacco buffer zone and prohibit the sale of menthol and other flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of Chicago schools.

Burned- Chicago Anti-Menthol Education CampaignThis is five times the existing radius and will be especially beneficial to children who live in urban environments – environments that are inundated with tobacco outlets and their accompanying predatory tobacco industry activity. But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Department of Public Health have drawn a new bold line in the sand, telling Big Tobacco to keep its hands off Chicago’s children, especially the Black and Brown ones of the inner cities.

This cutting-edge legislation is the first ever to include menthol as a prohibited flavor. Over 70 percent of underage African American smokers use mentholated tobacco products. A recent Stanford University study documented that in neighborhoods with high percentages of underage African American students, mentholated tobacco product advertising increased while product pricing decreased.

Prohibiting the sale of these products in stores frequented by youth is important because it de-normalizes their use and decreases the “sense of familiarity” that the tobacco industry malevolently creates. This “sense of familiarity” serves to indoctrinate poor Black children, tilling the soil of their young minds from the time they can focus their eyes on the enticing tobacco advertising and planting the seeds that will one day lure them into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

Chicago’s new ordinance will also include “other tobacco products” such as Black & Mild and Swisher Sweets, favorites of underage African American males. These “other tobacco products” were somehow totally exempted from the 2009 FDA regulation, as their manufacturers were allowed to keep marketing all of the fruity and sexy flavors that were banned in cigarettes – in effect, affording poor and African American children unequal public health protection under the law.

The city of Chicago made history when it passed tobacco control legislation in mid-December that will regulate where menthol and other flavored tobacco products can be sold.

Under Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago has increased its cigarette tax, launched “Burned,” a hard-hitting anti-menthol public education campaign, and will soon pass legislation that will regulate and prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. For his vision, leadership, moral conviction and broad shoulders, African American tobacco control advocates from across the country awarded Mayor Rahm Emanuel the Karen Bass Visionary Leader in Tobacco Control Award. This award was created in 2010 to honor Congresswoman Karen Bass, who at the time was the first African American woman speaker of the California Legislature.

Carol McGruderEmanuel has a long and distinguished history in tobacco control, most notably as a senior adviser in the Clinton administration, where he helped draft the original language that would become the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. He would then go on to vote for it as a Congressman and then, while serving as President Obama’s first chief of staff, he was there when it was signed into law.

Emanuel is the second recipient of this prestigious award, reserved for elected officials who use the weight and power of their offices to counter the disproportionate Black death and destruction left in the wake of Big Tobacco. Now that Chicago has taken such a bold stance, other cities across the country are sure to follow. 2014 promises to be a banner year for tobacco control!

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, in conjunction with the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and other members of the Save Lives: Ban Menthol coalition, will be providing technical assistance to other municipalities who want to protect inner city children from the predatory activity of the tobacco industry.

Carol McGruder is co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC). The AATCLC is a member of Save Lives: Ban Menthol, a national coalition urging the U.S. FDA to ban menthol in all tobacco products. She can be reached at To learn more, visit