The Congressional Black Caucus has joined criticism of the bill that would let the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco products, complaining about the omission of menthol, disproportionately favored by black smokers, from its list of prohibited cigarette flavors. As I noted in a column last month, this provision has been in the bill since 2004, but black leaders did not start to complain that failing to ban menthol cigarettes was racially discriminatory until after a May 13 New York Times story headlined "Cigarette Bill Treats Menthol With Leniency." The front-page article reported that "some public health experts are questioning why menthol, the most widely used cigarette flavoring and the most popular cigarette choice of African-American smokers, is receiving special protection as Congress tries to regulate tobacco for the first time." (Here's why: Because Philip Morris, the only major cigarette manufacturer supporting the bill, does not want to give up the money it makes from Marlboro Menthol, the No. 2 brand in this category.) Two weeks after the Times story ran, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network withdrew its support for the tobacco bill, and now the Congressional Black Caucus, responding to Johnny-come-lately criticism from former Secetary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, has taken up the cause as well.
So has John Banzhaf of Action on Smoking and Health, who is demanding removal of the "racist and lethal" menthol loophole. Meanwhile, the anti-smoking groups that back the bill, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association, warn that "the impact of modifying or prohibiting such a large portion of the current cigarette market is unclear," saying menthol smokers might turn to the black market. (Oddly, that concern did not stop the bill's backers from supporting a provision that authorizes the FDA to order a reduction in nicotine levels.) Although I can't say I agree that the bill discriminates against blacks by letting them smoke the cigarettes they prefer, I nevertheless hope that charge sinks the legislation, which is bad for several other reasons.