The letter said the exemption of menthol from proposed legislation banning tobacco flavorings would "trample the health of African-Americans." Studies show that 75 percent of African-American smokers choose menthol cigarettes, the letter said.
The New York Times said menthol was exempted from the bill to gain support from Philip Morris USA, which makes the second-leading menthol brand. Menthol cigarettes account for more than 25 percent of the U.S. cigarette market.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., health secretary under President Jimmy Carter, said the idea for the letter started after he was contacted by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, health secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
"We both got our blood boiling," Califano told the newspaper.
Other health secretaries who signed the letter were Richard S. Schweicker and Otis R. Bowen, who served under President Ronald Reagan, and David Matthews, the health secretary for President Gerald Ford, the newspaper said.