The New York Times ran another article by Stephanie Saul today about the menthol exemption to the proposed ban on flavored cigarettes. Since black smokers are the largest buyers of menthol cigarettes, the issue is becoming entangled in racial politics. For example:
The bill’s treatment of menthol “caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African-Americans — the segment of our population at greatest risk for the killing and crippling smoking-related diseases,” the letter from the former [federal health] secretaries said. “It sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters.”
Or this, from Saul’s previous article:
Menthol is particularly controversial because public health authorities have worried about its health effects on African-Americans. Nearly 75 percent of black smokers use menthol brands, compared with only about one in four white smokers.
That is why one former public health official says the legislation’s menthol exemption is a “cave-in to the industry,” an opinion shared by some other public health advocates.
“I think we can say definitively that menthol induces smoking in the African-American community and subsequently serves as a direct link to African-American death and disease,” said the former official, Robert G. Robinson, who retired two years ago as an associate director in the office of smoking and health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She’s right about the financial interest: the menthol exemption is clearly a sop to Phillip Morris, the only tobacco company backing the bill. And she’s right that there’s no logical reason for allowing only menthol as a flavoring, except for the fact that it’s the flavor most consumers of flavored tobacco actually want. It’s dubious, however, to say that this discriminates against blacks. Whatever the current market shares may be, there’s no reason to think that if other flavorings are banned consumers of all races won’t switch to menthol.
In fact, it’s perverse to say that not banning a product that’s enjoyed by many African-American adults is a form of racial discrimination. To do so implies that blacks are victims of marketing, cannot responsibly make their own decisions, and need to be coercively protected from flavored tobacco products; basically, that they should be treated like children. The alternative view — that however regrettable heavy menthol cigarette use among African-Americans may be, the choice should be theirs to make — doesn’t even merit a mention within the The Times‘ reporting pages.
I don’t believe that either side in this debate is truly motivated by racism. However, if reporters are going to print allegations of discrimination in their coverage of it, they should consider that public health activists are no more immune to racial bias than anyone else.
See also Jacob’s Sullum’s coverage of the issue for Reason:
The Times Discovers the Tobacco Bill’s Flavoritism
FDA-Approved Cancer Sticks