Menthol cigarette ban could harm health, disproportionately harm blacks

Menthol cigarette ban could harm health, disproportionately harm blacks

All cigarettes are bad for your health and can cause cancer. But the government is moving to ban menthol cigarettes, even though they may be less cancer-causing than non-menthol cigarettes. “Both lung cancer incidence and mortality were lower in menthol smokers compared with nonmenthol smokers, even after adjusting for pack-years of smoking,” according to the peer-reviewed study “Lung Cancer Risk Among Smokers of Menthol Cigarettes,” which you can find on the National Institutes of Health website. If that’s the case, then banning menthol cigarettes is likely to increase cancer rates by pushing menthol cigarette users to non-menthol cigarettes.

As Vanderbilt University’s William Blot notes, “If the existing epidemiologic data showing lower risk of lung cancer among menthol than non-menthol smokers hold generally, then in the long-term if high percentages of menthol smokers switch to non-menthols, the ban could have the unintended consequence of a net increase rather than decrease in risk, at least for lung cancer.”

But the Biden administration wants to ban menthol cigarettes, which blacks overwhelmingly prefer, in the name of “racial justice,” notes Reason magazine:

Supporters of the ban on menthol cigarettes that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed today say it is “a racial justice issue.” They are right about that, but not in the way they mean.

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What they mean is that 85 percent of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, compared to 30 percent of white smokers. “The number one killer of black folks is tobacco-related diseases,” Phillip Gardiner, a tobacco researcher and activist, told Slate‘s Julia Craven after the FDA announced plans for the ban last year. “The main vector of that is menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.”

The FDA’s proposed rule would ban both, which the agency says will “address health disparities experienced by communities of color.” Action on Smoking and Health welcomed the FDA’s ban, calling it “a major step forward in Saving Black Lives” and averring that “menthol advertising violates the right to health of Black Americans.”…

As the menthol ban’s proponents see it, even the choice to start smoking is not really a choice, because consumers—in this case, black consumers in particular—are no match for Big Tobacco’s persuasive wiles. Gardiner cites the industry’s history of “predatory marketing,” while the anti-smoking Truth Initiative condemns “relentless profiling of Black Americans and vulnerable populations” by brands like Kool, Salem, and Newport.

That’s one way of looking at it. Here is another: The federal government is targeting the kind of cigarettes that black smokers overwhelmingly prefer, precisely because black smokers overwhelmingly prefer them. The FDA also worries that menthol cigarettes appeal to teenagers, another “vulnerable population.” Public health officials are thus treating African Americans like children in the sense that they don’t trust either to make their own decisions.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” says Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.” The FDA notes “particularly high rates of use by youth, young adults, and African American and other racial and ethnic groups.”

The federal government is implicitly denying the moral agency of black people, suggesting that they, like adolescents, are helpless to resist the allure of “predatory marketing” or the appeal of menthol’s minty coolness. In the FDA’s view, persuasion is not enough to break Big Tobacco’s spell; force is required.

The FDA’s legal license to prohibit menthol as a “characterizing flavor” in cigarettes comes from the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. That 2009 law, which gave the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products, banned flavored cigarettes but made an exception for menthol. At the same time, it left the FDA with “authority to take action” against “menthol or any artificial or natural flavor.”…the FDA is displaying remarkable shortsightedness regarding the practical impact of its policy on the community it supposedly is trying to help. “Policies that amount to prohibition for adults will have serious racial justice implications,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Drug Policy Alliance, the Sentencing Project, and 24 other organizations warned in an April 2021 letter to Becerra and Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock. “Such a ban will trigger criminal penalties, which will disproportionately impact people of color”…The ACLU letter noted that “a menthol cigarette ban would disproportionately impact communities of color, result in criminalization of the market, and exacerbate mass incarceration.” The ban “also risks creating large underground, illegal markets.” That “would be a massive law enforcement problem for states, counties, and cities, since all states treat unlicensed sale of tobacco products as a crime—usually as a felony punishable by imprisonment.”…The FDA “recognizes concerns related to how state and local law enforcement may enforce their own laws in a manner that may impact equity and community safety, particularly for underserved and underrepresented communities.” Its solution is to request public comment on “policy considerations related to the potential racial and social justice implications of the proposed product standards.”

The case of Eric Garner, who was killed by New York City police in 2014 during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes, gives you some idea of what the menthol ban will mean in practice.

LU Staff

LU Staff

Promoting and defending liberty, as defined by the nation’s founders, requires both facts and philosophical thought, transcending all elements of our culture, from partisan politics to social issues, the workings of government, and entertainment and off-duty interests. Liberty Unyielding is committed to bringing together voices that will fuel the flame of liberty, with a dialogue that is lively and informative.


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