While it sounds at first like a good idea, the FDA’s recently announced plan to ban menthol cigarettes makes less and less sense the more you think about it.
Smoking costs the United States $381 billion per year on medical care and lost economic activity. With that in mind, news of the menthol ban is unsurprising. Targeting appealing flavors of cigarettes seems like a logical policy with a clear, beneficial goal: to get people to smoke less and, thus, to reduce related medical costs and economic losses. Yet, as with many nanny-state policies, the big-dollar-sign-justification doesn’t quite add up in reality.
Take the state of Colorado, for example, which has also proposed a menthol ban. The projected damage of the ban to the local economy could amount to $4.6 billion, with 5,000 ordinary, hardworking businesses, all paying the price for state regulation. But it’s not just the businesses that’ll suffer, it’s consumers as well. Banning sources of addiction won’t keep people from trying to get their fix. It’ll just create a black market, which would criminalize smokers and penalize them for their addiction. It would also place additional pressure on state institutions to try and control the flock.
A menthol ban would have tremendous costs in Colorado, and that’s just one state. Imagine the cost and impact of a national ban.
The FDA has tried to justify the ban by noting how menthol cigs have disproportionately hurt the LGBTQ+ community as well as some other minorities – as if these Americans have no agency in the slightest in their cigarette consumption and inevitably need protection from the state. If the Fed really wants to help members of the LGBTQ+ community, why force them to get their preferred cigarettes from black market vendors? That’s essentially what they’ll be doing if they go through with the ban.
The FDA hopes the ban will result in 900,000 smokers quitting. But a glance at the data the agency cites shows how menthol bans can only hope to achieve marginal success – and to the detriment of most. The truth is, the vast majority of menthol smokers won’t stop smoking just because the government told them to. On the whole, menthol smokers will either switch to non-menthols or find a way to get their hands on menthols by hook or by crook.
It’s hard to see why the FDA feels this ban is necessary, given the number of smokers worldwide has been steadily declining for decades. And people – myself included – are finding their own, better ways to quit, like with vapes and nicotine pouches.
Yet the FDA is vehemently opposed to these products, despite their clear benefits to would-be ex-smokers. In September of 2021, the FDA refused to grant marketing approval for millions of vaping products. The hypocrisy is astounding when you consider the FDA’s all important goal of “ensuring broad and equitable access to all the tools and resources that can help currently addicted seeking smokers to quit.”
Take it from this ex-smoker: Quitting smoking is a hugely personal task, something that can only be achieved with strict personal agency. The FDA’s current approach is basically saying ‘you have to quit, and you have to do it my way.’ That is not public health, it’s politics, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last two years, it’s that consistently coupling the two rarely produces beneficial outcomes.
The FDA wants to restrict cigarettes while restricting proven alternatives. That’s nonsense.
The FDA should stop trying to tell people how to spend their lives. Instead, it should remove barriers for smoking alternatives to allow consumers more freedom to choose pathways out of smoking that actually work.
By Alys Watson Brown | Young Voices
Alys Watson Brown is a political commentator with outlets including CapX and TALKTV. She is a student of Politics with Quantitative Research at the University of Bristol and a contributor to Young Voices UK.