The Biden Administration was expected to officially ban menthol cigarettes in the U.S. in part because statistics show that most Black smokers prefer them. The health-minded pending policy’s announcement came last week.
But banning them wouldn’t stop the sale of so-called regular cigarettes that can still cause cancer to their presumably non-Black smokers, making the menthol move even more curious to those who oppose it.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 77% of Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes. That’s because, the CDC says, “because the tobacco industry has aggressively marketed menthol products to young people and African Americans, especially in urban communities.”
Further, Black people die from diseases related to tobacco use at a higher rate than whites even though Blacks smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at an older age than white people do, according to the CDC.
Another argument in favor of the ban is that menthol cigarettes are more addictive than regular ones, in part because the menthol flavor makes “smoke inhalation easier to tolerate and therefore promote nicotine addiction and smoking-related illness,” scientists at Yale concluded in a 2012 study. That research also determined that menthol cigarettes posed the worst risk to children, who not only find them easier to smoke because of the flavor but are also more frequently exposed to them at a younger age.
One study even found that menthol cigarettes were marketed to African American youth in a “predatory” manner through ads and lower prices near many California high schools. Another study released in the American Journal of Public Health showed that banning menthol cigarettes could save as much as 600,000 premature deaths by the year 2050.
Thus, health experts at Washington University in St. Louis concluded that the menthol ban would benefit young Black people the most.
Food and Drug Administration officials said they expect the menthol ban to lead to nearly 1 million smokers quitting altogether, including about 230,000 who are Black.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told the Grio that the decision was based on “science” and was a preventative measure to help Black people.
“We want to save lives in the Black community,” Becerra said.
To be sure, though, just because something is less addictive doesn’t mean it’s not addictive. In fact, a ban on menthol cigarettes will not eliminate the accessibility of regular cigarettes regardless of the smoker’s age. It also won’t eliminate the presence of menthol cigarettes, if past American prohibitions are any indications.
Critics of the ban say there are several additional considerations that have not been adequately addressed.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote in a column that the menthol ban left a bad taste in his mouth in part because it would only create a black market; one that, by introducing a criminal element to smoking menthol cigarettes, would likely disproportionately affect the same Black people the ban is supposed to be helping.
Remember, it was untaxed, loose menthol cigarettes — and racial profiling — that invited the NYPD‘s deadly violence against Eric Garner, who was accused of the nonviolent crime of selling them on the black market nearly seven years ago.
“Given all the ways that Americans of all races manage to obtain illicit mood-altering substances of all kinds, we should anticipate the emergence of an underground market in menthol cigarettes,” Robinson wrote.
That same “underground market” thrived back when certain cities raised the price of a pack of cigarettes under the guise that doing so would help smokers quit.
According to statistics from the American Lung Association, Black people account for the second-highest percentage of smokers in the U.S., edging white people by just two-tenths of a percentage point (16.8% to 16.6%.). But more than three times as many Black people smoke menthol cigarettes compared to white smokers.
Conversely, though, young Black smokers represent the second-lowest group of cigarette smokers aged 12-17. Additionally, cigars, not cigarettes, were reported as being the most popular tobacco product among Black high school students.
In the end, banning menthol cigarettes could be tantamount to breathing new life into the failed war on drugs which has, not coincidentally, also disproportionately and adversely affected Black people.
“The issue of tobacco control is no different, Michelle Minton recently wrote for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an economic think tank. Noting that “smoking is rare among affluent white populations,” Minton explained how “it should come as no surprise that as we move to decriminalize cannabis and while anti-tobacco groups advocate against criminal penalties for minors caught vaping (seen as popular among white teens), we are also increasingly moving toward policies that turn tobacco smokers (and especially majority-Black menthol smokers) into criminals or second-class citizens.”
Meanwhile, sales for menthol cigarettes have remained at a consistent level while sales of regular cigarettes have dipped slightly, according to the most recent statistics available. The cigarette business is nearly a trillion-dollar industry with an expected growth rate of 1.8% from now through 2028.
The move to ban menthol cigarettes didn’t come overnight. The NAACP is among dozens of organizations and officials who have been lobbying the FDA to ban them for years.