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Banning Menthol Cigarettes Was Always a Bad Idea

Froma Harrop on

The Biden administration recently stopped a plan to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. The excellent arguments for why they are dangerous were overcome by good arguments for why making them illegal didn't make sense.

In a world of optimal health, no one would be smoking menthol cigarettes or any cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration determined years ago that the danger of these minty-flavored smokes came in promoting an easy introduction to nicotine. Their smoke feels less harsh, and the fresh taste lures young people into an entry-level addiction.

In 2009, Congress passed a law banning the use of flavoring in cigarettes with one exception: menthol. The FDA set up an advisory committee to study the matter. Two years later, it concluded that removing menthol from these products -- for the reasons cited above -- would benefit public health.

Why did the Biden administration back off on banning menthol cigarettes? Because 81% of Black smokers used menthols, compared with 30% of white smokers and 51% of Hispanic smokers.

Menthol cigarettes are no more toxic than regular cigarettes. So, the reasoning went, why single out a product that many Black people prefer?

At the same time, why defend a product that disproportionately hurts Black people?

No easy answers here, but there's yet another argument: Making menthol cigarettes an illegal product would prompt police to racially profile those likely to use it. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have raised such concerns.

In 2020, New York Rep. Yvette Clarke warned that outlawing menthol cigarettes would increase stop-and-frisk incidents. She joined Democratic whip Jim Clyburn and several other members of the Black caucus in voting against a House bill that would have stopped the sale of flavored tobacco products. The caucus had unsuccessfully tried to exempt menthol from the ban.

Do we really want to establish a black market for a product that is no worse for smokers' health than the same thing without a mint flavor?

 

Make no mistake. The view here is that cigarettes pose a serious threat to the health of anyone who indulges. I've seen the habit ravage friends I care deeply about. Very often smokers start young, waving away concern about what a pack-a-day habit would do to them in 40 years. How many 20-year-olds think about chronic coughs and wheezing as 60-year-olds? And nicotine is one of the hardest addictions to break.

On the other hand, there needs to be a certain radical acceptance of the right to make bad choices. We should all exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables. We are told to drink alcohol in moderation or, according to some, not at all. We ultimately decide.

Meanwhile, the case has been made that smokers cost our society less than nonsmokers. The controversial "smoker's dividend" argument goes that tobacco taxes smokers pay plus their premature deaths save governments money. Americans start to get expensive when they reach their mid-60s. If smoking cuts 10 years off their lives, that will mean 10 fewer years on Medicare, not to mention Social Security.

The Biden administration realized that pulling menthol cigarettes from the shelves might anger some Black voters in a tough election year. The political reason for opposing a ban on them is solid. And so is the argument for letting consumers choose a product that's no worse for them than the same thing without the minty flavor.

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Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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