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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Culinary Merchants of Death

I remember Lunchables, and the memories are very fond, indeed.  As a kid, I’m sure I tried all the original varieties, but my favorite was always their pizza:  The cracker-sized crusts and little vacuum-sealed packets of sauce and cheese that you assembled yourself.  For an unfussy fourth grader, it was the perfect lunch.

It never occurred to me that the people behind it were evil.

But that is the essence of a positively spellbinding article in this week’s New York Times Magazine, titled, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.”  Excerpted from a forthcoming book by Michael Moss called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, the article surveys some three decades’ worth of efforts by the packaged food industry to sell horribly unhealthy products to an unwitting public.

What makes the story so compelling is the prevalence of the word “addiction” in the context of food marketing, as used both by the author and by the marketing magicians themselves.  Moss draws a parallel with Big Tobacco, but he hardly needs to—the connection is unmistakable.

Recall the scene in Thank You For Smoking in which representatives for the tobacco, liquor and gun lobbies—“merchants of death,” they call themselves—meet for dinner and boast about the number of fatalities their respective products are responsible for causing?

Moss’s thesis, more or less, is that the snack food trade operates under a similarly callous ethos, viewing every consumer as a useful dolt, potential meat for slaughter.

Of course, the industry operatives themselves frame their business a bit more diplomatically than that.

One key term of theirs is “bliss point.”  As described by Howard Moskowitz, holder of a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and maestro of food “optimization,” this is the concept of engineering a food product to its greatest potential for satisfaction, as derived from taking a pile of considerations—taste, smell, texture and so forth—and running them through a focus group until a magic formula is attained.

At this point you may fairly ask:  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Indeed, it seems reasonable enough for a food company to invest its resources in figuring out how best to gratify its potential customers.

That is, until you wade into deeper waters, as Moss does, and realize the underlying object of finding this apex of culinary pleasure.

What do the seekers of this “bliss point” mean by calling it “optimal”?  What is their overriding consideration?

It is, in short, “How can we make this product as addictive as humanly possible?”

In one passage, Moss offers a précis about the alchemy of creating the perfect potato chip (hint: it involves salt) and quotes a food scientist who pinpoints Frito-Lay’s Cheeto as “one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.”  He cites a phenomenon called “vanishing caloric density,” whereby the tendency for Cheetos to melt in your mouth fools you into thinking they contain practically no calories and, therefore, “you can just keep eating [them] forever.”

The result, of course, is a country that is as fat and unhealthy as ever it has been.  The difference is that certain food companies—like tobacco companies in years past—are now suddenly being called to account, to assume responsibility for knowingly perpetuating a culture of destructive consumption.

The point at which Big Snack Foods becomes a mirror image of Big Tobacco—the “tell,” as it were—is the endless refrain by higher-ups that they are simply giving the public what it wants.  That if Americans have a hankering for crunchy cheese puffs made of sugar, salt and fat, then by God the crunchy cheese puff industry will provide them!  Is that not what capitalism is all about?

As we learned the hard way during the great showdown with the cigarette companies in the 1990s, it depends on precisely when “want” becomes “need”—on when a purchase is less an act of free will and more the expression of an uncontrollable impulse.

When someone pops into a 7-Eleven to grab his fourth pack of Marlboro Lights since breakfast, can he truly be said to be making a free spending decision in pursuit of his own happiness?  If not, does the entity that produced the addictive product bear any moral responsibility for the product’s impact on its customers?  Finally, and in any case, have we reached a point in which we ought to view eating habits in the same way?

We might agree that each of us is responsible for our actions.  But what happens when those actions are no longer truly in our control?