Smoking Bans

Menthol Cigarette Bans Sweep the Nation

Politicians should butt out of people's personal habits.


Marlboro Menthol cigarette boxes.
Mattes/Wikimedia Commons

Once nanny-staters wanted to take the fun out of smoking. Now they're trying to take the flavor out.

This week Oakland prohibited the sale of flavored tobacco products, including flavored cigar papers, vaping liquids, and menthol cigarettes. San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in June of this year. Minneapolis did the same in August.

Even the feds are looking to get in on this action. On August 22, eight Democratic senators sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration demanding that the agency take actions to "remove menthol cigarettes from the market place."

What, you might ask, could possibly justify such a petty restriction? Racial justice, apparently. San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, has promised her city's ban will put a stop to tobacco companies "selectively targeting our young adults in the African American community, the Asian Pacific Islander community, the LGBT community." (She also describes the rule, which she introduced, as "groundbreaking" and "Earth-shattering.") Similar justifications have been offered in Oakland, Minneapolis, and elsewhere.

It is true that black smokers use menthol cigarettes at a greater rate than the average American smoker. 88 percent of black smokers choose menthol cigarettes, compared with the 30 percent market share menthol cigarettes have among smokers nationwide. But does that mean the proper anti-racist response is to crack down on menthol? Indeed, is it not perhaps a tiny bit discriminatory to prohibit a product primarily because of the race of the people buying it?

Cohen and company have a readymade response to this: Far from being a genuine expression of their preferences, minorities have been hoodwinked into liking menthol cigarettes by a tobacco industry that "loves vulnerable populations" and "targets" them accordingly.

The Centers for Disease Control loves this line of though. On a webpage titled "African Americans and Tobacco Use," the agency treats us to some of the ways evil tobacco companies have allegedly inculcated a desire for menthol cigarettes among the black population. They includes giving menthol products more shelf space in black neighborhoods, having price promotions on menthol products, and running "culturally tailored" advertisements.

To progressive prohibitionists, this all is evidence of a grand conspiracy to create demand for menthol cigarettes. To me, it looks like businesses servicing a preexisting demand.

You don't have to take that from me, though. Take it from the city council president and vice mayor of Oakland, whose report on the supposed need for a menthol ban states this explicitly: "As a result of market research, the cigarette companies know that most African-American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes."

The report goes on to quote internal tobacco marketing documents confirming this. "Marlboro would probably have a very difficult time getting anywhere in the young black market. The odds against it there are heavy. Young blacks have found their thing, and it's menthol," reads one 1974 report at Phillip Morris.

On top of that, I'm hard pressed to understand what exactly these bans will accomplish. Many smokers will make do with all the other sorts of cigarettes that will still be available. And people who really crave that cool, minty flavor will have the option of stocking up in the next city, or will just source their smokes from the inevitable black market that arises to meet their needs. Does anyone think the ban will actually cause a substantial number of smokers to quit?