Menthol Cigarettes: In or Out?

In 2009, President Obama–a semi-closeted smoker–signed the “Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.”  The law granted the FDA new powers to regulate tobacco advertising. It also banned vanilla, coffee, clove, and other flavored cigarettes.

But the law didn’t ban menthol cigarettes. Congress left that decision up to the FDA. Now the FDA is considering their options.

In this month’s issue of Cigar Magazine, CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman recounts the history of the racially-charged debate over whether or not to ban menthol cigarettes. Almost 80% of black smokers smoke menthols; now the NAACP is advocating for the FDA ban on menthols and the National Black Chamber of Commerce is campaigning against it. In “Menthol Wars,” Kazman addresses the popular anti-menthol argument that menthol cigarettes unfairly target minorities since menthol smokers inhale more deeply:

By some accounts, black smokers, who heavily favor menthol, seem to suffer more than white smokers from smoking-related illnesses.  But other analyses show that this difference becomes insignificant once socio-economic status is taken into account.  And biomarker studies on the levels of absorbed smoking by-products find no real differences.

Even if such differences in risk do exist, there would seem to be a simple regulatory fix—just change the warnings on cigarette packs and in ads to reflect the added risk.  Whether FDA has enough respect for smokers to entrust them with this knowledge is another question.

Kazman also debunks claims that menthol ads perpetuate a false impression that menthols are “healthy” cigarettes by using ad-words like “cool” and “refreshing”:

Decades ago, the industry expressly claimed that menthol was healthier, suggesting, for example, that non-menthol smokers switch in order to “combat a cough.” Over time, the argument goes, this approach slowly morphed into (in the words of the antismoking American Legacy Foundation) the use of “code words like ‘smooth’ and ‘refreshes’ and the colors of blue and green.”  The result is a “fraudulent health reassurance message” that continues to deceive people.

If this critique sounds squishy, that’s because it is squishy.  Just about every tobacco industry use of healthy-looking people and lush landscapes has been criticized as an attempt to conceal the risks of smoking.   Nonetheless, since the 1960s, federally mandated warnings on cigarette packs have made those risks clear to everyone.  Thus, you can hardly argue that every inviting portrayal of smoking constitutes fraud.  Are ads for ski slopes deceitful because they don’t show broken bones?

Read Sam Kazman’s full Cigar Magazine article here.