From 2008 to 2010, the Truth Initiative, America's largest nonprofit public health organization dedicated to the eradication of tobacco and nicotine use, estimated that almost 94% of young African American adults who smoked did so with menthol cigarettes. The trend is not new — menthol tobacco products have been marketed toward Black communities for decades.
And as a Black man who grew up in one of those communities, Wailoo experienced the industry’s advertising barrage firsthand. It led him to write “Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette,” in 2021, which just received the British Society for the History of Science’s Hughes Prize. The award is presented every two years for the best book in the history of science that covers an important topic for a broad audience.
“I was thrilled to receive the news, especially given the other outstanding works shortlisted for this honor,” Wailoo said.
The BSHS Hughes Prize, formerly the BSHS Dingle Prize, was established in 1997 to mark the 50th anniversary of the society and is named after the mathematician, astronomer, and science philosopher Herbert Dingle. It was renamed in 2019 for former BSHS President Jeff Hughes.
“Among an extraordinarily strong field of shortlisted books, Wailoo’s revelatory ‘Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette’ stood out for its originality and timeliness,” BSHS said in announcing the winner. “In telling the story of menthol cigarettes’ targeted marketing in African American communities, Wailoo draws on meticulous research to uncover the enmeshment of social sciences, racial exploitation, and corporate interests, with catastrophic consequences for public health in the United States. Lucidly written, with incisive commentary on present-day issues of racism, commerce, and public policy, the book speaks powerfully to experiences and audiences beyond the academic.”
Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, Wailoo, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs, saw the deluge of Kool brand menthol cigarette advertising in his neighborhood. It wasn’t until he moved to the New Jersey suburbs years later that he realized the billboards and other advertising selling menthol tobacco products were less prevalent.
“We've long known about targeted marketing, but the book offers a look behind the curtain to tell the story of how those tactics, strategies, and deceitful practices emerged, where they worked and where they failed, and how a range of consultants, as well as unlikely figures, became involved in making, sustaining, supporting, and defending these inner city and poverty markets,” Wailoo said.
Wailoo will discuss his book during an online public lecture on October 17 at 10 a.m. EDT.