Racism has a flavor?

Michael Siegel links to this excellent article in Slate by Paul Smalera (in which he is extensively quoted). Smalera does a great job explaining the flaws and inconsistencies in the FDA tobacco bill. However he does slip into a pernicious way of thinking about the menthol cigarette exemption and race that needs to be challenged and avoided.

Smalera pushes the idea that this bill is “racist” because it bans the cigarette flavors that virtually no one smokes and exempts the one that many people do smoke, especially if they happen to be black. (Though, as he notes, the total number of white menthol smokers is approximately twice that of black menthol smokers.) In any other context, the racist move would be to ban the product that’s strongly preferred by African-American consumers; here it’s considered racist not to ban it. This idea portrays blacks in particular as helpless victims of tobacco companies who must be treated like children by a protective government.

In contrast, here is what non-racist tobacco policy would look like: Educate people about the dangers of cigarettes, tax them at a reasonable level, work aggressively to keep them out of the hands of minors, and then let all consumers — yes, even blacks! — make their own decisions about what, if anything, they choose to smoke.

The real reason the FDA bill exempts menthol has nothing to do with race: Menthol cigarettes make money and thus have lobbying power behind them. Clove, grape, and chocolate cigarettes don’t make much money and thus don’t have lobbying power behind them. End of story.

Unfortunately, the FDA bill is almost certain to pass and we will all be stuck with a law that, for all the reasons Smalera elucidates, will be good for virtually no one except Philip Morris. There are plenty of reasons to oppose it, not the least of which is the question of whether the government has any business at all forbidding adults from buying flavored cigarettes. The constant introduction of race into the debate distracts from these more important issues.

Update: Paul Smalera responds in the comments.

Blunt racism
Cigars for me, but not for thee
Freshly minted bias


1 thought on “Racism has a flavor?”

  1. Hey Jacob,

    Appreciate your thoughtful discussion and of course praise of my article. I thought a lot about how to address the idea of race and finally decided to do it the way I did because racism can be and often is institutional. Rather than any overt act of racism here, it’s commission by omission, but the net effect is still more harm towards menthol smokers, who are disproportionately African American.

    I mention the number of white menthol smokers specifically to support the idea that this omission is not a plot by anyone to target African Americans, but rather a disastrous consequence of the menthol exemption. And a bill that calls itself a tobacco safety act ought to address what studies have shown is the most dangerous and addictive type of cigarette, no matter who’s smoking it. We do agree that it’s money behind this decision, but the consequences have to be measured in real terms, and that’s what I hope I managed to do. Again, thanks for the shout out.

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