FDA proposes ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes

The FDA is considering banning the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes. This has been met with opposition from many sides, many of which are African American groups:

On Monday, the debate among African American organizations burst into the open after the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, joined ranks with the anti-smoking group, the American Legacy Foundation, in calling for a ban on menthol as a cigarette flavoring.

The NAACP’s appeal came just days after three other African American groups — the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives — urged the FDA to reject a ban on mentholated cigarettes. Those groups, testifying before a recent meeting of the FDA’s scientific advisory panel on tobacco products, expressed concern that banning mentholated cigarettes could spur an illicit market for the outlawed products in minority communities where they are favored. Such a trade in banned menthol cigarettes, in turn, would likely drive a range of illegal activity and put new burdens on law enforcement agencies, they warned.

Tobacco companies deny allegations that they are specifically advertising to certain ethnicities, of course. From CNN:

Leonard Jones, director of marketing at Lorillard Tobacco Company, said that “ethnicity does not play a role” in marketing strategies for the Newport menthol cigarette. “We don’t collect or retain information on ethnicity in our marketing data base.”

To that I say: bravo sierra.

They have to say that. I’m sure the statement is factually correct– as in, I’m sure it’s true that they don’t collect data related to ethnicity, but it’s not difficult to know where to market to people of color, or any other demographic, for that matter. Of course tobacco companies make sure to advertise menthol cigarettes in areas heavily populated with ethnic minorities. And it’s not rocket science. I used to smoke American Spirit menthol cigarettes, and they weren’t advertised anywhere that I went to on a regular basis; but when I moved to a predominantly black neighborhood years later, there were huge advertisements for them in every convenience store, gas station, and liquor store nearby. In fact, I don’t recall tobacco advertisements for regular cigarettes at all, or at least with the same frequency, size, or prevalence as advertisements for menthol cigarettes.

The other group opposing the proposed ban is not at all surprising: tobacco companies. They claim that menthol cigarettes are no more harmful than regular cigarettes. The jury is still out, officially, but some studies suggest that, while it’s still unclear whether or not the menthol flavoring by itself is dangerous, people who smoke menthols are more likely to inhale more deeply and hold the smoke intheir lungs longer than smokers of regular cigarettes, increasing the harmful effects of the poisonous substances.

Personally, I don’t see any benefit to such a ban. I agree with many of the groups quoted earlier who believe that, following a ban, menthol cigarettes will become yet another source of organized crime in working-class neighborhoods, causing more strain on the law enforcement community, and adding yet one more reason for law enforcement to target African American males. A better option would be to increase regulations on marketing of tobacco. For one thing, get the advertisements out of gas stations where kids frequently walk or ride their bikes to spend their allowances on candy and magazines. Prohibit advertisements where people look happy to be smoking– or better yet, where people are shown smoking, period. Follow through with the proposal to put graphic images of diseased lungs and other smoking-related health maladies on cigarette packages.

History has made it abundantly clear that prohibitions on substances like tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs do not work. They just simply do not work. People have to be allowed to be able to make the choice about whether or not to engage in harmful behavior, and so long as every person has the opportunity to make an educated decision about the matter, they should be free to do so. And, because I’m a Big Brother-loving socialist or something, I think more regulation is the answer. Regulate and tax the hell out of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and other narcotics, make clear, accurate information about the substances readily and easily available to the public at large, and don’t allow any kind of manipulative marketing practices, and then, let the people decide.

If criminalizing marijuana, prostitution, alcohol, and abortion doesn’t help to stop the activity, neither will banning menthol cigarettes from being sold.

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5 Responses to FDA proposes ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes

  1. I agree with many of the groups quoted earlier who believe that, following a ban, menthol cigarettes will become yet another source of organized crime in working-class neighborhoods, causing more strain on the law enforcement community, and adding yet one more reason for law enforcement to target African American males.

    Is the preference for Menthols over standard cigarettes really so high that a black market would form for Menthols? How easy is it to illegally make them, and how much more would they cost than standard cigarettes? To compare an undesired ban on something to prohibition is to substitute meaningless rhetoric for substantive argument.

    History has made it abundantly clear that prohibitions on substances like tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs do not work. They just simply do not work. People have to be allowed to be able to make the choice about whether or not to engage in harmful behavior, and so long as every person has the opportunity to make an educated decision about the matter, they should be free to do so.

    Actually, prohibition did reduce the rate at which people drank alcohol. The reason people say that it failed is because the cost of enforcement outweighed the benefits, not because it failed to reduce the amount of alcohol people drank.

    So far, no one has given us any reason to believe that a black market for menthol cigarettes would form if they were banned. Anyone taking this position would have to show that the preference for menthols over regular cigarettes would be great enough to produce a profitable black market for them. None of the opponents has given us any reason to believe that this would happen.

    The one area where we agree is that advertisements for cigarettes need to be heavily regulated. I think tobacco ads ought to be banned outright.

    • Danny says:

      By my own experience and by pop culture I would say its possible that a black market could arise and only be limited by the ability to produce menthol cigs, or an acceptable substitute.

      What I mean by my experience is that in my experiences with black people nearly all of those that smoked smoked Newports. By pop culture there are examples of references to Newports being the cigs that black people smoke. Dave Chappelle has joked about this in his material and I specifically recall it coming up in other shows (like the episode of Drawn Together in which there was a plot to cause black people to fail by making pencils flavored with menthol and grape, thus causing them to chew their pencils to the point they could not use them to take tests).

      I’m not trying to pass this off as proof undeniable just pointing out that there may be sign that such a black market might happen.

    • April says:

      Actually, prohibition did reduce the rate at which people drank alcohol. The reason people say that it failed is because the cost of enforcement outweighed the benefits, not because it failed to reduce the amount of alcohol people drank.

      That was a really fascinating article, thanks for linking to it. I was admittedly unaware of most of the politics and environment surrounding the Prohibition, so that was really helpful information that’s changed the direction from which I base my opinions a bit.

      I suppose it would make sense that consumption would certainly go down if made illegal, because it’s easily the case with the other things I mentioned as well, like prostitution, abortion, marijuana, and other banned-at-some-point-but-always-prevalent things. My position remains the same, though, because the benefits of fewer people engaging in the banned activity is more dangerous in ways that exceed one’s legal health while banned than it is while legal and regulated.

      Now that I’ve brought it up, I think it’s worth noting that there’s a distinction between banning the sale, possession, and use of a substance like alcohol, marijuana, or menthol cigarettes, and prohibiting something one chooses to do with ones own body, like abortion, sex work, or assisted suicide. Each only affects the person engaging in the activity*, but while each group bans activities, only one bans forms of bodily autonomy. And while banning a substance can have the benefit of decreasing the public’s use of the substance, which can lead to a decrease in certain health problems, making illegal something that a person chooses to do with one’s own body ensures that those who continue to need, feel like they need, or are forced into any of these activities will face increased danger of health and legal problems. Illegal abortions have proven to be deadly, sex work in areas where it is illegal is done at great risk to the physical safety of the sex workers, and doctors and other health care workers have been charged with murder– all because of (usually) consensual actions.

      Anyway, I think the last paragraph of the link you posted sums it up nicely:

      As historian Ian Tyrrell writes, “each drug subject to restrictions needs to be carefully investigated in terms of its conditions of production, its value to an illicit trade, the ability to conceal the substance, and its effects on both the individual and society at large.”

      While the “value to an illicit trade” may not be as high as some assume (you’ve caused me to doubt my initial agreement with this assumption), I don’t believe the effects on the individual or society at large, not the conditions of the production, are any more dangerous that anything that is already legal, likely to stay that way without too much moral backlash. I don’t see a great enough benefit to the banning of menthol cigarettes to justify bothering.

      As for your other point, I would also like to see tobacco advertisements stop entirely. I wouldn’t normally be in favor of the government banning only one industry from advertising their product, but given the fact that a) it’s still legal and b) it’s a lethal substance that should be treated as such, I am fully in support of maintaining tobacco’s legality, but restricting the sale and marketing of it to an unheard of level.

  2. I always noticed, back when I smoked and bummed cigarettes from everyone (I was a pest then, too), that black people always smoked menthol. After bumming several from them, I was a convert for awhile and smoked Marlboro menthols. The Newports were heavily menthol!

    I’ve always found the market difference interesting, and (as an ex-drinker) I always noticed fruit-flavored alcoholic drinks were also African-American preferences: sweet wines and brandies, etc. (Danny’s menthol-and-grape comment cracked me up, okay.)

    My first thought: If it was white people primarily smoking menthol, they’d make everyone smoke that, instead. (((rolls eyes))

  3. Brittany-Ann says:

    Thanks for the heads-up. As a menthol smoker (Camel 9 menthols), I wasn’t even aware of this conversation going on. My cigarettes are more mildly flavored than others, and much more so than Newports. I have noticed that African-Americans tend to favor Newports, and it hasn’t escaped my notice, either, that Newports are one of the most expensive brands, even in Kentucky where tobacco taxes are relatively low. I’m not convinced that’s a coincidence.

    There’s a double whammy going on with this proposal: 1) there’s a heavy prejudice against tobacco users* (I use that turn of phrase because people also chew), and 2) the idea that fiberglass is used to make the menthol flavoring. I’m not sure if that’s myth or truth; I’ve heard it both ways. Regardless, it’s out there, and that’s the only thing that matters as far as this proposal goes.

    I don’t think it will happen. The tobacco lobby is strong, and as much as I cringe at its power and influence, the selfish part of me is grateful, because darnit, I like my menthol cigarettes. I would be very amused if they decided to put graphic images on packs though. I think people (including myself) would simply buy a case to put the cigarettes in, so we wouldn’t have to look (or anyone else) at disturbing images every time we pulled out a pack.

    *There are many reasons for this prejudice, one being the health risks associated, but my answer to that is the prejudice is nowhere near that of alcohol users, which can and has caused as much harm as tobacco–yet smokers are treated with a contempt and disdain much more prevalent than that of alcohol users. I’ve never had anyone come up to me as I’m enjoying a beer and tell me off for it, for instance.

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