SocraticGadfly: Does the government want blacks to smoke more?

May 18, 2008

Does the government want blacks to smoke more?

It sure looks that way. Menthol, found most prominently in “urban-friendly” brands such as Kool and Newport, is getting kid-glove treatment?

A Congressional bill to give the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate cigarettes bans most flavored cigarettes, including clove and cinnamon ones.


Not a peep. (Nearly 75 percent of black smokers use menthol brands, compared with only about one in four white smokers.)

As the Times notes:
The reason menthol is seen as politically off limits, despite those concerns, is that mentholated brands are so crucial to the American cigarette industry. They make up more than one-fourth of the $70 billion American cigarette market and are becoming increasingly important to the industry leader, Philip Morris USA, without whose lobbying support the legislation might have no chance of passage.

Whenever Congress is in bed with Philip Morris, you know bad things are bound to happen.

Here’s the fallout that will happen. Many blacks will rightly think whites care less about them. Some will even raise the old conspiracy theory flag.

Supporters of the bill, even African-Americans, argue there’s no other way to pass it:
“I would have been in favor of banning menthol,” said Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, who supports the bill. “But as a practical matter that simply wasn’t doable.”

Even the head of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, a nonprofit group that has been adamantly against menthol, acknowledges that the ingredient needed to be off the bargaining table — for now — because he does not want to imperil the bill’s chances.

“The bottom line is we want the legislation,” said William S. Robinson, the group’s executive director. “But we want to reserve the right to address this issue at some critical point because of the percentage of people of African descent who use mentholated products.”

Fine. Pull the bill. Don’t postpone “someday” into an undefined future.

And, there’s other fallout. First, Philip Morris is lying about menthol. Congress, do you really want to go down the road of partnering with a brazen liar on this issue?

And, there’s other issues. Beyond the fact that menthol does make it easier to smoke, there’s concerns about menthol in cigs as a health issue:
Concerns about menthol have circulated since at least 1998, when the C.D.C. reported that menthol “may increase the absorption of harmful smoking constituents.”

Also, the taste of menthol may increase psychological dependence.

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