A Fresh Take on Tobacco

The U.S. government is thinking about severely regulating the sale of menthol cigarettes, if not banning them outright.

Why is that?

Because menthol cigarettes might be hazardous to your health.

Yes, I was shocked, too.  But apparently it is true that the countless toxins embedded in the nicotine of your friendly neighborhood cigarette are not magically disappeared by the addition of a fresh, minty aftertaste.

Who knew?

The particular concern about menthol cigarettes—as might interest those who, like your humble servant, assumed all cigarettes were more or less interchangeable—is that they are more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes, and therefore a riskier habit for young, first-time smokers to take up.

“There is little evidence to suggest that menthol cigarettes are more or less toxic or contribute to more disease risk to smokers than regular cigarettes,” according to a recent Food and Drug Administration review.  “However, there is adequate data to suggest that menthol use is likely associated with increased smoking initiation by younger people and that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting.”

The review went on to explain that “there’s also evidence indicating that menthol’s cooling properties can reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke and that menthol cigarettes are marketed as a smoother alternative.”

This new FDA report makes no explicit recommendation as to whether, and how, the government should act on these fresh findings, although a similar report in 2011 noted that “removing menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit public health.”

In making the case against any further tobacco regulation, one is tempted merely to fall back on all the usual tropes.  You know, the ones about how smoking is an individual’s right and choice—two values upon which the American republic is founded—and that if one is not granted the right to make the wrong choices, one has no rights at all.

Further, that while it is regrettable that the age limit for purchasing cigarettes has long proved to be of limited practical use, we cannot and should not prohibit adults from engaging in adult activities simply because they might also be engaged in by children.

And that it is beyond the competency of the government to determine which activities are good and which are bad.

And that there is no sentient being left in the United States who does not know that, in health terms, smoking is a breathtakingly stupid thing to do.

All of these things are as true as ever they have been.  Any libertarian-minded person can be contented that the moral argument against smoking prohibitions was complete many years ago and requires no further comment.

And yet, one feels somehow obligated to revisit and perhaps recalibrate this pro-tobacco line of logic in light of the unique challenge that menthol cigarettes present.

I noted at the start how, until presented with this information about the effects of menthol, I had assumed all cigarettes were created equal.  While I knew that, like liquor or coke, they came in many colors, names and brands, I nonetheless figured that their overall effect on one’s system was the same.

My inkling, and my concern, is that many other people are equally unaware of the difference between menthol and non-menthol cigarettes, not knowing that the former, by design, tend to be more addictive than the latter.

Taking this to be true, it stands to reason that an aspiring teenage smoker who might be capable of handling the poisons in non-menthol cigarettes will, for reasons of taste, opt for menthols under the impression that they are no more crippling than the regular brands, and wind up with an addiction that proves to be a bit more than he bargained for.

Accordingly, the case for applying special legal scrutiny to menthol, relative to non-menthol, would seem to rest on the principle of full disclosure.

Lest we forget, the original war on Big Tobacco was based not on the fact that cigarettes are poison, but rather that the companies selling them insisted that they were not.

If we are to regulate menthol in a stronger way, that is the basis on which we should do so:  By informing menthol’s current and potential users precisely what it is they are putting in their mouths, thereby allowing them to smoke, suffer and die in the most intellectually honest possible way.

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