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The Menthol Diaries: Taking back Pride from tobacco

Tobacco Free NYS Campaign

Coming together to talk about Big Tobacco and the LGBTQIA+ community, employees of equalpride share their experiences with menthol tobacco and their journey to stop smoking.

This story is brought to you by our partners at Tobacco Free New York State.

For the LGBTQIA+ community, attending Pride is one of the most important celebrations of the year. Our community comes together to express themselves unapologetically, backed by the love and support of the people who show up. But that's not all who shows up. Corporations that support the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride are trying to sell themselves and their products to adopt new consumers. Every year, one industry targets the LGBTQIA+ community with one goal in mind, to recruit new smokers.

Big Tobacco has been a major part of Pride for decades, marketing their products as if they're a requirement to being queer. And it's working, because LGBT young adults are nearly 2x as likely to use tobacco as their non-LGBT peers, according to a study done by Truth Initiative. But what Big Tobacco specifically uses to target the LGBTQIA+ community are mentholated tobacco products. According to a study done by the CDC, LGBT smokers are more likely to use menthol cigarettes than non-LGBT smokers. From seeing them at Pride to hanging out with friends who smoke them, menthol has easily found its way into every queer person's life. For the employees of equalpride, that fact rings true from their experience with menthol tobacco. Read on to see how they've taken back their pride and quit smoking.

"Menthols made me feel cool; I thought I was invincible," Dru Forbes, Director of People and Culture, starts. "My friends smoked them and we would sit around on our back porches talking and smoking. It was our thing. I remember trying to stop smoking menthols, but regular cigarettes no longer cut it for me. I only wanted the cool rush."

Smoking with other queer friends and getting introduced to menthols is a common experience. For Nicole Arseneault, Digital Photo Editor, that's exactly what happened.

"I started with Newport Lights. My new friend from Brooklyn smoked them, along with some of the other cool kids in our high school courtyard. They had this underlying cigar taste which reminded me of childhood days with my grandparents," Nicole muses.

When asked what it was like smoking menthols, Nicole answered that the smoking experience was "smooth, light, and tasty," an experience that was common to Senior Reporter Christopher Wiggins.

"There was always something soothing about the cool sensation from menthol cigarettes that made the smell of the smoke also more palatable to me at the time. Although cigarette smoke generally was off-putting to me, I noticed that there was a cooling, minty sensation - a flavor of sorts - which made it feel 'Kool.' During my time smoking menthol cigarettes, I would - in the event I was out of cigarettes and had to bum one - turn down regular cigarettes because they tasted like dirty air. For me, it was menthol cigarettes or none at all."

That pleasurable experience was what Big Tobacco offered Christopher and his colleagues. But it didn't take long for them to realize that they were being recruited into a lifestyle they didn't agree with.

Over the years, Dru, Nicole, and Christopher have witnessed menthols as being a major part of Pride events with countless people in the crowd smoking together. You could go up to anyone and bum a menthol cigarette. It was that kind of targeting from Big Tobacco that kept menthols a big part of their lives. But for different reasons, one by one they each decided to quit smoking.

"In the end, menthol got the best of me," Nicole continues. "After a few years it felt like I was inhaling glass. I tried to quit smoking altogether and that was wildly unsuccessful at the time. Marlboro Lights became my brand for the next decade or so."

Nicole quit because of the long-term effects smoking menthols had on her, but for Dru and Christopher, family is the reason for why they quit.

"I was hit with a reality slap at 21; my grandfather had a heart attack, and the doctor told him he needed to quit," Dru shares. "My grandfather is the glue of our family, but one by one, we all started to try to quit smoking. It wasn't until I was 27 that I finally stopped for good."

Christopher experienced the same thing with his family and found it to be a long journey to eventually quit.

"I started smoking menthol cigarettes when I was 15 years old and I quit earlier this year at 42 years old in support of my mom who had to quit smoking because of a medical diagnosis."

It's clear menthol was a huge part of not only Dru and Christopher's lives, but their families' lives as well. When asked about life since menthols, Dru is much happier even if he thinks about them from time to time.

"I would be lying if I said I don't think about them. I feel a tug for that cool release when I am incredibly stressed. However, over the years, the smell and smoke now make me nauseous, and for that, I am grateful."

Christopher could understand where Dru was coming from, musing, "It's been seven months since having my last cigarette and not craving any since and I ask myself why I shelled out so much money and potentially damaged my health for so many years, but we live and learn."

Although these three employees have taken back their pride and no longer smoke, it's clear that Big Tobacco has impacted their lives irrevocably.

"Thankfully, I have been nicotine free since January of 2021," Nicole shares. "It was the hardest addiction I ever had to break. When I started smoking I would say 'I'm not addicted, I can quit whenever I want,' and that may have been true for a short period of time. But by the time that chemical had its grips on my body, I had lost all control of my habit. But I do enjoy the act of smoking still. Some habits die hard."

To find out more about how menthols impact the LGBTQIA+ community, please visit Not Just Menthol.

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