Menthol Madness: Why Ban Blacks' Preferred Cigarette?

Banning menthol cigarettes, which 80 percent of African-American smokers prefer, won't make folks quit.

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As with virtually every other African-American smoker I know, the only acceptable brands of cigarettes for me came in green-and-white packs. If you didn't puff Salems -- my cancer sticks of choice -- you probably consumed Newports or Kools.

I always found it odd that the top three brands shared the same color scheme. It took a few years to realize that menthol was another commonality, which Dave Chappelle had fun with on his "I Know Black People" game-show sketch on his Comedy Central show. He asked contestants why blacks love menthol so much. "I don't know," said a social worker. "That is correct!" Chappelle said. "No one knows for sure."

Whatever the reason for that preference -- shared by an estimated 80 percent of black smokers, according to most reports -- cigarette manufacturers and anti-tobacco groups are well aware that we favor menthol. But a proposed ban on mentholated cigarettes has caused a rift among forces that advocate on behalf of blacks' interests. In one corner, favoring a ban, are the NAACP, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. In opposition are the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

The NAACP joined the debate last week, just three days after the other groups urged the Food and Drug Administration to reject calls for a ban on menthol flavored cigarettes. The issue appears to be a Catch-22: You either support blacks' access to a dangerous-but-legal product (and arguably sustain its usage) or you support discrimination against the mostly black consumers of a dangerous-but-legal product (and arguably promote growth in the illicit cigarette trade).

I haven't been a smoker for more than 20 years and have no intention of picking up the habit again. But if I did and discovered that my Salems were forbidden while those disgusting Marlboros were still on sale, I'd be livid. Why would the government ban the cigarettes that I prefer, while the estimated 78 percent of non-Latino, white smokers who prefer non-mentholated cigarettes are allowed to keep on puffing?

We're in dangerous territory when the government functions as "Big Brother," and the same is true when it operates as "Big Daddy." Lawmakers shouldn't try to legislate the behavior of grown folks on health choices such as soda, fast food or mentholated cigarettes. There must a middle ground between paternalism and absolute laissez-faire. I'm not suggesting the social acceptance of crystal meth and heroin. But Prohibition didn't work too well with alcohol, and ground is being gained on the legalization of marijuana in some states.

Cigarettes would never get legal approval if they were hitting the market today. But we're way past the point where the government can just outlaw them. Try as it might, the government can't even tax them away, as evidenced by the rise of smuggling operations. A Department of Justice report states that cigarette smuggling into the United States is "a significant problem" that "attracts international and domestic criminal groups with the lure of high profits and relatively low risk."

If a ban is passed, the inevitable rise in illicit menthol cigarettes concerns black law officers. Jessie Lee, Executive Director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, writes, "In Canada, studies have shown that the size of the contraband market there -- caused by substantial tax increases -- is so substantial that it represents half of all cigarette smoking in some provinces. It's an amazing statistic. One of every two cigarettes sold in some areas are illegal."

As much as we wish that smokers would quit or never get started in the first place, we have to accept their existence. We've done our best to make the habit inconvenient and socially unacceptable, shunning smokers from public places indoors and outside. We've restricted tobacco manufacturers' ability to market their products (though cigarettes are still the most heavily advertised drug in America, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics).

But health officials know that tobacco is a powerful adversary, and cigarettes offer a persistent appeal to old and young alike. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 81 percent of teen smokers preferred the same three brands favored by adults: Marlboro, Newport and Camel. More than three-quarters of black high school smokers preferred Newport.

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