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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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.

Banning Newports or other mentholated brands isn’t the answer, not unless all cigarettes are banned. Education and enforcement of underage smoking laws is the best bet. Other efforts to reduce cigarette use should be applied evenly across the board, with the full realization that many smokers will continue to satisfy their habit — with or without government approval.

Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at deron@blackdoorventures.com.

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