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Pushing Cool

Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette

Pushing Cool

Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette

Spanning a century, Pushing Cool reveals how the twin deceptions of health and Black affinity for menthol were crafted—and how the industry’s disturbingly powerful narrative has endured to this day.

Police put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold for selling cigarettes on a New York City street corner. George Floyd was killed by police outside a store in Minneapolis known as “the best place to buy menthols.” Black smokers overwhelmingly prefer menthol brands such as Kool, Salem, and Newport. All of this is no coincidence. The disproportionate Black deaths and cries of “I can’t breathe” that ring out in our era—because of police violence, COVID-19, or menthol smoking—are intimately connected to a post-1960s history of race and exploitation.

In Pushing Cool, Keith Wailoo tells the intricate and poignant story of menthol cigarettes for the first time. He pulls back the curtain to reveal the hidden persuaders who shaped menthol buying habits and racial markets across America: the world of tobacco marketers, consultants, psychologists, and social scientists, as well as Black lawmakers and civic groups including the NAACP. Today most Black smokers buy menthols, and calls to prohibit their circulation hinge on a history of the industry’s targeted racial marketing. In 2009, when Congress banned flavored cigarettes as criminal enticements to encourage youth smoking, menthol cigarettes were also slated to be banned. Through a detailed study of internal tobacco industry documents, Wailoo exposes why they weren’t and how they remain so popular with Black smokers.

392 pages | 40 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Black Studies

History: American History, Urban History

History of Science


“For decades, cigarette makers have used menthol to target Black Americans. Wailoo does an excellent job showing how Big Tobacco has used both its marketing muscle and political power to get mentholated smoke into African American lungs—with deadly consequences. An indispensable text for anyone who recognizes that Black lungs matter.”

Robert N. Proctor, Stanford University

Pushing Cool unpacks the tobacco industry’s brilliant, deceptive, and diabolically successful strategy to hook African Americans on menthol cigarettes. Utilizing remarkable research and analysis, Wailoo demonstrates how the industry established a commercial choke hold on Black America, wantonly disregarding the devastating trail of disease and death that their product generated. If ever there was a case for banning menthol cigarettes, this is it.”

Allan M. Brandt, Harvard University

“With nuance and flare, Wailoo illuminates how a complex and deeply unsettling fabric of racial capitalism created a Black inner-city market for the most dangerous chemical flavor in the history of smoking. This is essential reading for historians, policy makers, ethicists, and social justice advocates reckoning with profound disparities as part of a tobacco end game.”

Amy L. Fairchild, The Ohio State University

“As Wailoo reveals in this astute and stunning work, menthol cigarettes are an acquired taste: an appetite deliberately cultivated by marketers, the media, and other influencers. Demographically targeted and racially exploitative marketing was unleashed as a strategy to captivate consumers in the face of growing public awareness of the health dangers of smoking. Pushing Cool is a brilliant, unsparing, and powerful rendering of Big Tobacco’s deadly racial predation.”

Alondra Nelson, Institute for Advanced Study

“This captivating, comprehensive book contains something to intrigue everyone—from lawyers to psychologists, marketers to historians. Pushing Cool is a unique and important work that deserves to be read widely.”

Andrea Freeman, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

“In Pushing Cool, Wailoo tells the fascinating story of how tobacco companies and advertising firms marketed menthol cigarettes, especially to African Americans. Diving deep into this untold history, he also brings essential insight into how the construction of pleasure-enhancing products and processes of racialization have enjoyed mutually informing histories well into the twentieth century.”

Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr., Columbia University

Table of Contents

Prologue: Pushers in the City of My Youth vii
The Crooked Man: Influence, Exploitation, and Menthol’s Expanding Web
1 Selling the Menthol Sensation
2 For People Susceptible to Cancer Anxiety
3 Building a Black Franchise
4 Urban Hustles and Suburban Dreams
5 Uptown’s Aftertaste 
Deception by Design: The Long Road to “I Can’t Breathe”

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