FDA bans product for tasting good

No, the headline is not an April Fool’s joke. This week the FDA began its inquiry into whether it ought to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes:

A scientific advisory panel that will advise the Food and Drug Administration on regulating tobacco opened a two-day meeting Tuesday and began reviewing hundreds of published studies on menthol cigarettes. The panel, largely made up of scientists, physicians and public health experts, has a year to make a recommendation to the FDA on menthol cigarettes, which are used by about 26 percent of smokers and make up almost one-third of the $70 billion U.S. cigarette market.

Throughout this process there will be allegations from anti-tobacco groups that menthol cigarettes are more addictive, more dangerous, and more likely to hook teenagers than unflavored cigarettes. These scare tactics neglect to mention that menthol itself is harmless. It’s not habit-forming like nicotine. It’s not dangerous and is used widely in medicinal, dental, and food products. Tobacco companies don’t put it in cigarettes as part of a dark conspiracy to addict people. They use it because it tastes good, is soothing, and consumers want it.

Because of these effects it’s possible that some of the charges against menthol cigarettes are true, statistically speaking. The FDA’s going to spend a lot of time and money sorting this out, but there’s no mystery as to why this is: When a product is pleasant, people consume more of it. They’ll smoke more of them or smoke each cigarette more intensively. They’ll have less reason to quit. Some teenagers will prefer them to unflavored cigarettes, just as about one third of legal adult consumers do. This doesn’t mean that menthols are especially toxic, it just means that people like them.

If this is accepted as a legitimate reason to ban menthol cigarettes there’s no limit to what the government could do next. It could ban other forms of flavored tobacco in cigars, pipes, chew, and hookahs — in fact, New York City has already passed a low doing almost exactly that. It could force cigarette producers to make their products so bland and heavily filtered that no one wants to buy them. It could kill premium pipe and cigar companies entirely, an industry whose purpose is to make tobacco that tastes good and is pleasant to smoke.

And that’s just tobacco. If menthol and other flavors can be banned for “masking” the harsh taste of cigarettes, why not ban flavors that “mask” the harshness of cheap vodka? Or the barrel aging that turns hot white dog into mellow whiskey? Or hops in beer, condiments in fast food, milk and sugar in a venti Frappuccino? As individual health increasingly becomes the public’s business, there’s no end to the unhealthy things we can reduce the consumption of by simply making them unpalatable.

If you read the press coverage of this debate in The Post for example, you’ll see quotes from anti-tobacco activists explaining why menthol needs to be banned. You’ll even see quotes charging that not doing so would be racially discriminatory on the grounds that menthols are relatively more popular among blacks than whites. What you won’t see are quotes from any of the millions of consumers who currently smoke menthols and may soon have that choice taken away from them. The opinions of smokers do not matter; they are assumed to be dupes or addicts incapable of making their own decisions. By portraying them as victims of the tobacco companies anti-smoking activists dodge the consumer rights aspect of this issue. They avoid answering the hardest question asked in opposition to their plan: If a consenting adult wants to purchase a flavored cigarette, why shouldn’t he be allowed to do so?

This is a dangerous road. It’s one thing to forbid sales to minors, to tax tobacco, to require warning labels, and to restrict the sorts of places where one can light up. It’s quite another to take a product off the market simply because many people prefer it. That is pure paternalism; take individual agency out of the picture and it’s a much smaller step to banning tobacco entirely.

This issue is going to drag on for a long time. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it here, but be sure to also follow the excellent coverage of Brooke Oberwetter starting with her most recent blog post.