The menthol-flavored cigarette debate is about health, freedom, and racial justice
The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web
The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it plans to ban sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes, a decision that raises questions of public health, individual freedom, and racial justice. Nearly 85 percent of Black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes — which have been flavored to provide a cool, minty sensation — compared to only 29 percent of white smokers.
In support of the ban, the FDA has cited studies claiming that ending menthol sales could prompt 923,000 Americans — 230,000 of them Black — to quit smoking and could save 633,000 lives, including 237,000 Black lives. It would likely take at least a year for the ban to go into effect and could take even longer if tobacco companies challenge the rule in court. These are the angles being debated by experts.
When Washington, D.C., passed a ban on menthol cigarettes last year, The Washington Post's editorial board argued that "menthol cigarettes kill lots of Black people every year, and preventing another generation from getting hooked on flavored tobacco products targeted at them would be a victory for the Black community." The FDA has said since 2013 that menthol flavoring makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.
Guy Bentley, the director of consumer freedom at the libertarian Reason Foundation, took issue with this claim. "It's widely known in the public health community that menthol smokers typically start later in life and smoke fewer cigarettes per day," Bentley wrote, adding that "states with the highest menthol consumption" have been found to have "the lowest youth smoking rates" and that "African-American adults do not smoke at significantly higher rates than whites."
In a letter to Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, Al Sharpton claimed that a ban on menthol cigarettes might pose its own health risks for Black Americans. "Specifically, there would be a number of economically challenged consumers that would not comply with the ban and instead increase engagement in less regulated (but dangerous) activities like tampering with cigarettes to create their own menthols and switching to unregulated herbal menthol cigarettes," he argued.
"One thing that there's no disagreement about is that the history of menthol cigarette marketing to Black folks is rich with racist stereotypes and the worst of intentions," Kalli Holloway argued at The Daily Beast. Holloway wrote that tobacco companies handed out free cigarettes in Black housing projects and even donated to civil rights organizations in order to stifle criticism from within the Black community.
Jacob Sullum, writing for Reason, argued that this viewpoint infantilizes Black people. In addition to Black Americans, Sullum notes, 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 ... In the FDA's view, persuasion is not enough to break Big Tobacco's spell; force is required."
Sharpton further argues that the ban would impose a disproportionate restriction on the freedom of Black smokers "while leaving all other cigarette smokers to enjoy the product of their choice" freely. "The days of Black Americans going to the back door of the store to make purchases should be in our rearview mirror," Sharpton wrote.
The New York Times notes that Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network, has been taking money from the cigarette maker formerly known as R.J. Reynolds for two decades.
"A menthol ban would impose serious risks, including increasing the illegal sale of smuggled, black-market menthol cigarettes as well as the street sales of individual menthol cigarettes — loosies — and in turn place menthol smokers at a significant risk of entering the criminal justice system," Sharpton argued. The ACLU also expressed concerns, declaring that "policies that amount to prohibition have serious racial justice implications."
The Post's editorial board voiced similar fears, pointing out that "New York City police put Garner into a chokehold after approaching him on suspicion of illegally selling loose cigarettes." The board, however, ultimately praised the way D.C.'s government chose to implement the ban.
"D.C. lawmakers empowered the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to enforce the ban, rather than D.C. police" and made sure that the legislation would target "purveyors of tobacco products, not smokers," the board explained. "The council showed that public health and racial sensitivities need not compete on this issue."