Civil Rights

Too Kool?

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Smoking has gone from a personal vice to a public health problem to a civil rights violation. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery, the Uptown Coalition (originally formed in 1990 to protest a cigarette brand aimed at urban blacks), and a group of current and former smokers claim that the marketing of menthol cigarettes to blacks violates their civil rights.

Based on the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1870, which were enacted to protect former slaves during Reconstruction, this lawsuit marks the first attempt to sue tobacco companies under federal civil rights law rather than personal injury or product liability statutes. The suit alleges that blacks account for 60 percent to 70 percent of menthol puffers and argues that since the soothing effect of menthol enables deeper inhaling, menthol cigarettes have a disparate impact on black smokers' health.

The plaintiffs want tobacco companies and industry groups to make public all research about the impact of smoking on blacks. It also seeks a ban on menthol cigarettes.

In explaining the use of civil rights legislation, plaintiffs' attorney Stephen Sheller told CNN that the acts were "intended to prevent targeting black people in ways that take advantage of them."