A potential ban on menthol cigarettes has sparked a debate within the African American community over whether a government ban should be welcomed for health reasons or considered a condescending demonstration of paternalism.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering implementing a ban on menthol cigarettes believing that the additive is more appealing to young people as it “has cooling and anesthetic effects that reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on data from 2006, 75 percent of African American adult smokers and 23 percent of white adult smokers use menthol cigarettes.
Niger Innis, national spokesperson for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), told The Daily Caller that while he is not a smoker and loathes the habit, he is frustrated to see his community targeted and condescended to in this way.
“It is so much more abhorrent to think that some government entity is going to come in and say, ‘well, because blacks tend to disproportionately smoke this type we are going to ban it to protect them from themselves,’” Innis said. “That is the utmost in paternalism and contempt for a community. We should be allowed to regulate our own lives. Part of freedom is having the freedom to make choices and deal with the consequences of those choices.”
For the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, John Payton, it is a health issue. Payton told NPR host Michal Martin in November that the issue at hand is keeping African Americans from smoking, specifically African American children.
“What I’m saying is that there is a tremendous number of kids, underage, unlawfully starting to smoke,” Payton said. “And one of the things that lures them into it, especially the African-American kids, is the flavoring of menthol.”
The African American community, however, is doing much better than other races in keeping their children away from cigarettes. In 2009, the University of Michigan and Monitoring the Future conducted a survey of 12th graders which found that African American youth smoking rates tend to be much lower than other races. Just 9.8 percent of African American youth said they smoked, compared to 23.9 percent of white youth and 15.7 percent of Hispanic youth.
While the NAACP and others push for a menthol cigarette ban, Innis said he is concerned about the potential for a black market developing in menthol cigarettes which could land more African Americans in prison for something that was not illegal at the outset.
“I find the NAACP to be extremely hypocritical in this question…While simultaneously promoting the criminalization of a legal product, and creating a new class of criminals within our community, was it not they who were pushing for the legalization of marijuana — which is illegal?” Innis asked. “The gross hypocrisy of this is the reason they were pushing for legalization is because of the number of African Americans that get caught distributing or possessing.”
To Payne and the NAACP, banning menthols is less about the principle and more about health.
“[H]ere’s what we know as a civil rights organization that has worked on civil rights issues: kids — 12, 13, 14, 15 — do not make the same mature judgments as 30-year-olds. And they make decisions that, in fact, harm them in the future,” he said. “They don’t appreciate the consequences of it. So we know something about what kids can and can’t appreciate. Menthol is a flavoring. There’s just no question about that. And it is luring kids who are underage into starting to smoke in the first place.”
Regardless of the health risks, Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce and a nonsmoker, said that while he would never recommend smoking, the idea of banning a product largely used by African Americans is discriminatory. He went on to wonder what would be targeted by the federal government next?
“There is just no justification. I have a cigar every now and then — those are bad for me. They are going to come after my cigars, then my uncle’s pipe, and then, what’s next — no more Scotch! Let’s live a little!”