Public Health

The Times Discovers the Tobacco Bill's Flavoritism


The New York Times notices that the bill authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products bans every cigarette flavor but menthol. Not coincidentally, Philip Morris, the only cigarette manufacturer that supports the bill, sells mentholated brands, while those other flavors are used by its competitors. But instead of wondering whether a bill that seems designed to reinforce the advantages of the industry leader is good for consumers, the Times suggests menthol should be banned too. It offers three reasons:

1) Menthol cigarettes are "the most popular cigarette choice of African-American smokers," who account for a disproportionate share of the market for brands such as Newport and Kool. The Times never explains why this is troubling, but the concern is of a piece with the anti-smoking refrain that it's especially reprehensible for tobacco companies to "target" blacks because they, like women and children, are a "vulnerable group."

2) "Menthol smokers may be exposed to higher levels of dangerous compounds than nonmenthol smokers." If so, the greater hazard could be due to chemicals produced by burning menthol or to menthol's cooling, anesthetic effect, which might encourage smokers to take bigger or deeper puffs or hold them longer. But there's no firm evidence that mentholated brands are in fact more dangerous. The Times cites a CDC scientist who refers to "multiple lines of evidence, generally consistent, suggesting that there's reason for concern," while conceding "there are few definitive answers about the health impact of menthol cigarettes." A 2002 review by the CDC and the National Cancer Institute, the Times reports, "said the research up to that point had been inconclusive," and "in five large studies of menthol to date, only one has found higher rates of cancer among menthol smokers than nonmenthol smokers, and only in men." 

3) Menthol "may make it harder for the addicted to kick the smoking habit." How so? "One theory suggests that menthol in cigarettes, by providing an additional pleasurable sensory cue to smokers, reinforces addiction." This is just another way of saying that people who smoke menthol cigarettes like the way they smell and taste.

As I noted a few years ago, when an earlier version of this tobacco bill was introduced, anti-smoking activists consider good taste inherently objectionable, ostensibly because it appeals to minors. Former Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a co-sponsor of that bill, tells the Times, "We were able to eliminate the use of flavored cigarettes, strawberry, mocha, and all this stuff that is clearly targeted at young kids…to start them smoking tobacco." As usual, this argument goes unchallenged, but it is patently absurd to claim that luring underage smokers is the only possible reason for adding flavor to tobacco products. People over the age of 18 have been known to smoke clove cigarettes, vanilla-flavored cigars, and cherry-infused pipe tobacco. Instead of pretending that it's all about the kids, the advocates of FDA regulation should admit that they want to make the smoking experience as boring and unpleasant as possible, the better to deter everyone, whether 16 or 60, from consuming tobacco products.

My most recent column on the tobacco bill is here.