By Marc Anthony
For better or worse, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has approved or banned things “for people’s health”. A few of the things the FDA has banned include Haggis, flavored e-cigarettes, unpasteurized cheese, various colorant chemicals, oil of saffron, and tonka extract, citing their potential for harmful effects to the body as cause for their bans. However, I’m not writing an article to argue about how wonderful Haggis is and how we should all be eating it (I personally am not a fan of animal innards, but you do you). This article is about how the FDA has moved to ban the sale and production of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars to “significantly reduce disease and death.” While yes, it’s likely that this move will reduce the amount of smokers who smoke these products, it’s also incredibly likely that this will increase a fresh hell of racial injustice and over-policing, further driving a deeper wedge between communities of color and the government at a time when tensions are already high due to excessive force used by cops for arbitrary reasons.
Menthol is the last available cigarette flavor, after all others were banned in 2009. Flavors like cherry, chocolate, and various others were taken off the market because they appealed to minors and young adults, since the flavoring tends to mellow out the strong and harsh taste of pure tobacco. In 2014, the FDA polled a group of 12-17 year olds and 18-25 year olds, and found that 80 percent and 75 percent respectively reported that the first tobacco product that they tried was flavored. In another poll, the FDA noted that 85% of black smokers prefer menthol products, compared to 30% of white and 35% of Hispanic smokers. This is understandable, since for many years Big Tobacco aggressively marketed menthol cigarettes to the black community.
In the United States, around 39% of all cigarette smokers use menthol. Similar to flavored cigarettes, the appeal is that the cooling mint flavor masks the abrasive taste and allows for deeper inhalation since the pain receptors in the mouth and throat are blocked by the cooling effect. According to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina, despite this sensory illusion, only seven percent of people who smoke menthol cigarettes actually believe that their brand is better for them than regular unflavored cigarettes. The vast majority know that their cigarettes are just as toxic as any other kind; it comes down to a matter of preference, especially in communities of color.
The FDA has come out with a statement saying that the ban will only directly impact manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers; they will “work to make sure that any unlawful tobacco products do not make it onto the market.” That’s all well and good, but you know which country didn’t ban menthol cigarettes? Mexico. The demand will still be there after they’re banned, and people will either travel to Mexico if they live close by, or participate in the inevitable black market right here at home. In a similar way, this has already been proven true: New York banned the sale of flavored e-liquids for vapes, and people either go to Pennsylvania to buy them or they have them imported (here’s looking at you, gas stations selling mint Juul pods in French). Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and people will always find a way to get what they want: in this case it’s that sweet, sweet chilly taste of minty death sticks.
Regardless of the ban, there’s still going to be a demand for this type of cigarette. Maybe a little corner store imports them and keeps selling them to cater to their customer base; what are the cops going to do? They’re going to barge in, shut it down, confiscate the offending minty plant, and arrest people. As seen in many past situations (or basically anything involving cops, really), this is going to be enforced with excessive brutality. Another negative inevitability is that police will crack down on the sale of loose cigarettes, under the guise of “safety” to make sure that menthols don’t reach the lips of any innocent person. We’ve seen this already happen in the case of Eric Garner, who in 2014 was murdered by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes without a tax stamp. Since the black community reports that they use menthols more than any other group, this really seems like just another excuse that police can use to target them. Police are going to use the ban as an excuse to burst into black and minority-owned stores to make sure nobody is selling menthols and stop black people on the street to make sure they aren’t smoking any minty bois, at a much higher rate than they will for white people and white-owned businesses.
Menthol cigarettes were banned in Canada nationwide in 2018, so there is already evidence as to what will happen if, and when, the ban goes into effect in the United States. A study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that a menthol ban didn’t have a great impact, because many people just switched to non-menthol, or purchased their menthols from Native Canadian reserves, because they were exempt from the ban. In short, the ban on menthol didn’t really do much; people still found a way to get what they wanted to get. I imagine the same sort of situation will occur in the United States. The ban will be for naught, at the expense of the black community. If the FDA truly wanted to help people to be healthier, they would speak to the communities plagued by the issue and work with them to find a solution instead of a catch-all ban that has the strong potential to cause more harm than good.