The longest Samuel Johnson has ever been able to give up menthol cigarettes is three months. Every time he tries to quit, he said, that cool, minty flavor that first drew him and other African-American smokers to menthols lures him back.
"Everybody has a habit and mine is smoking cigarettes," said Johnson, 20, standing outside Harold Washington College downtown between classes with other young students, many of them puffing on menthols.
Johnson, who began smoking at age 17, is unfazed, he said, that the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, which for decades were heavily marketed to minorities. If they do, he said, he'll just try to find a way to get them on the streets.
The FDA hearings have led to a fervid debate in the African-American community about whether a ban would curb smoking or lead to a crime-ridden black-market industry.
The controversy intensified last week, when 11 new studies funded by the National Cancer Institute and published in a special supplement to the journal Addiction found that African-Americans and young adults disproportionately smoke menthol cigarettes and are less successful when they try to quit.
The NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund has joined forces with the American Legacy Foundation, an antismoking group, to support an FDA ban in an effort to keep another generation of young people from being drawn in.
According to the NAACP, the FDA discriminated against African-American children by banning the sale of clove and fruit-flavored cigarettes last year while exempting menthol-flavored cigarettes. The FDA formed a committee that recently heard testimony on menthol safety and its impact on blacks. A report is expected next spring.