The FDA has taken it upon itself to liberate America’s youth from the blight of cigarette smoking. As has sadly become typical of its activities, the regulator has reached for the 20th-century policy playbook of taxes and bans. According to its recently published plans, the FDA intends to ban menthol cigarettes altogether.
The proposed menthol cigarette ban is a textbook case of nanny statism. When questioned on it, proponents of bans like these tend to quote alarming statistics about cancer cases and deaths among smokers and regale with tales of blackened lungs, heart failure, and other health disasters. But that response answers a question no one asked.
Americans already know that smoking is unhealthy. It is patronizing and infantilizing for a regulator to suggest otherwise. We no longer live in the 1950s, when doctors would routinely prescribe cigarettes as a remedy for the common cold. Still, while educating the public on matters of public health might well be a laudable course of action, that is not what the FDA is proposing.
The FDA’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach of slapping bans on things it does not like will only make the situation worse.
There is a disconnect between the issue the regulator has identified and its proposed solution. Sure, menthol cigarettes are harmful. No one is denying that. But will a ban actually achieve the desired goal of reducing consumption? On a generational level, Western society is weaning itself off cigarettes independently. In 2018, 61.7 percent of adult smokers quit.
A much better, more positive course of action — which would not criminalize millions of Americans in the process of trying to safeguard their health — would be to invest in and pave the way for innovation and investment in stop-smoking technologies such as electronic cigarettes. But the FDA view is too simplistic for that. It does not extend beyond thinking, “Menthol cigarettes cause harm; therefore, we should ban them.” Worryingly little thought is given to actually achieving the desired outcome of improving public health.
In fact, all the evidence suggests that bans of this kind simply do not work. Liquor prohibition came to an end almost a century ago for that reason. Banning the legal purchase of menthol cigarettes will only fuel illicit tobacco trade. It will be a boon for the black market, funneling money into the pockets of criminal gangs and leaving consumers vulnerable to the whims of unlicensed, unregulated, unaccountable vendors.
When cigarettes become inaccessible (or unaffordable, because of wildly inflated tobacco taxes), illegal trade grows. The research, such as a study conducted by Pepperdine University on this subject, consistently shows that banning consumer products only drives those consumers towards the illegal market.
A two-pronged approach is needed: stronger enforcement against the illegal tobacco trade alongside the creation of a safe, regulated environment for consumers to buy the products they want. The FDA’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach of slapping bans on things it does not like will only make the situation worse for all parties.
Perhaps worst of all, bans of this kind simply do not succeed in preventing activities regulators want to forbid. Banning menthol cigarette sales will not necessarily stop people from smoking menthol cigarettes. In 2020, the South African government tried to ban alcohol, leading to supermarkets selling yeast, sugar, and pineapples as home-brewing kits. If people want to drink or smoke, they will find a way to do so, even when the government objects.
When smokers want to quit, they must have access to the education and resources they need in order to do so. But according to data from the CDC, more than three in 10 smokers have no interest in giving it up. The FDA’s obvious yearning for a smoke-free America is a fantasy for the foreseeable future. Mission creep is rampant — it is not the FDA’s job to lean into nanny statism and make lifestyle choices on behalf of the average American. Many people want to smoke, and we have no right to tell them not to.
In the post-COVID era, there is a real and imminent risk of politicians and regulators getting hooked on the high of centralizing control on people’s lives. Mask mandates, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders have led to a crop of lawmakers and busybodies who can’t give up the habit of nanny statism. The FDA’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, like most nanny-state policies, will do much more harm than good, and it must not go ahead, however attractive it might be to those who run America.
Jason Reed is the spokesperson at Young Voices and a policy analyst and political commentator for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624.