Last year, not long after the Food and Drug Administration got legislative authority to regulate tobacco, “flavored” cigarettes were banned — on behalf of the children.
This was largely a publicity stunt since Twista Lime, Kauai Kolada and other flavored cigarettes made up less than one percent of the cigarette market and manufacturers had largely scaled back their production of flavored cigarettes by the time the FDA announced the ban.
Now the FDA is embarking on something more ambitious: Going after menthol cigarettes.
Perhaps the attack on flavored cigarettes was a practice run, because the stakes are much higher now. In going after menthol cigarettes, the government seeks to outlaw 30 percent of the current cigarette market.
As with flavored cigarettes, proponents of a ban say the cool menthol taste hooks people on smoking. This time around, in addition to saying that menthol targets kids, critics are also throwing the race card into the mix because menthols are the preferred cigarettes of roughly three-quarters of black smokers.
This coming war on menthols is a study in contradictions that will affect all Americans regardless of race and whether they smoke.
First and foremost, this 21st-century attempt at Prohibition will be a boon for smugglers. Cigarettes are already recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as the likely “number-one black market commodity in the world.”
Cigarette smuggling — now largely focused on avoiding the many taxes imposed on tobacco — already got a boost in the late ’90s when additional fees were added to comply with the tobacco industry’s settlement deal with state attorneys general. If menthol cigarettes are banned entirely, a new and extremely lucrative market will open up.
According to the ATF, more than $100,000 can be made right now from just a simple minivan full of contraband cigarettes smuggled into New York City. This puts money into the hands of the mob and even would-be terrorists while simultaneously depriving straining governments of tax revenue.
By the way, the Lorillard Tobacco Company, which sells these cigarettes, estimates that outlawing menthol cigarettes would reduce state and federal tax revenues by approximately $40 billion.
Don’t forget that someone selling homemade or smuggled menthol cigarettes out of the trunk of a car is also probably not very concerned about asking for proof of age. This means that creating a new underground market for cigarettes could conceivably increase underage access to tobacco products.
And don’t expect these smuggled smokes will undergo the quality checks that their currently legal counterparts face.
Then there’s the race card.
The NAACP supports a ban on menthol cigarettes. In October, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president John Payton called it a “national disgrace and a tragedy” that menthol cigarettes are allegedly disproportionally marketed to blacks.
Yet the NAACP’s California State Conference gave its “unconditional endorsement” to California’s Proposition 19 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana use. Again citing disproportionality, Conference president Alice Huffman called legalizing pot a civil rights issue because of an alleged disproportionate prosecution of black pot users and dealers — a criticism echoed by the national group’s vice president, Hilary O. Shelton.
NAACP support for Proposition 19, which failed overwhelmingly, creates a double standard. For example, a review of 90 previously published reports by the British Lung Foundation noted that three marijuana “joints” a day can be as damaging as 20 tobacco cigarettes. Marijuana tar is 50 percent more cancerous and its key ingredient hurts lung immune systems.
Quite simply, the NAACP can’t be both pro-pot and anti-tobacco when it comes to health issues.
For decades, people have been warned about the potential dangers of tobacco. Tobacco use is a choice, but the government and its supporters are trying to take the freedom away from people. In doing so, they now threaten to open a Pandora’s box of problems.
Horace Cooper is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network.