President Joe Biden, who turned his candidacy around with strong support from Black Americans, is paying them back with the most openly racist public policy since Jim Crow: banning menthol cigarettes.
Banning menthol cigarettes is racist, because the evidence they’re popular among African-Americans is even stronger than the evidence that smoking them causes cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control, African-Americans are the group with the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use. The FDA reports that 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, more than twice that of whites.
The standard reply to this is that tobacco companies aggressively market menthol cigarettes to Black communities. There’s good evidence this is true. Menthol cigarettes are given more shelf space in minority neighborhoods, and areas with large minority populations tend to have more tobacco retailers.
But ask yourself: Can things really be that simple? Are people simply passive consumers of anything big companies want to sell them? If Big Tobacco started aggressively marketing menthol cigarettes to you personally, or your community as a whole, would you get hooked? If your answer is a confident no, but you believe that marketing explains tobacco buying habits of minorities, then good luck trying to come up with an answer that isn’t racist.
Make no mistake about it: Cigarettes shorten your life. That’s what the overwhelming scientific evidence says, so that’s what I believe. Adding menthol to cigarettes makes them more pleasant to smoke, so that makes them more popular. I get that. Nicotine is an addictive drug. I get that, too.
But the present rhetoric surrounding menthol cigarettes eliminates human agency from the equation. It turns smokers, particularly Black smokers, into mindless robots. For example, according to a Washington Post headline, menthol cigarettes “addict — and kill Black Americans”.
Since when did “addict” become a transitive verb? Does tobacco magically roll itself up, spontaneously immolate, and jump into a smoker’s mouth? Isn’t that view of smokers just a little bit, well, degrading?
Let’s suppose you’re not buying any of my arguments (and most of you probably aren’t). Cigarettes kill people, Big Tobacco has all the money, nicotine addicts can’t control themselves and need help. Black lives matter, banning menthol cigarettes will save Black lives. What could be wrong with that? Plenty.
What do Eric Garner, Michael Brown, George Floyd, and Sandra Bland have in common? They were Black Americans killed by police in altercations involving tobacco. Garner was illegally selling loose cigarettes. Brown was suspected of stealing cigars. Floyd was trying to purchase cigarettes with counterfeit money. Bland was pulled over and refused to put out her cigarette. She was arrested and died in jail.
Does anyone seriously think the demand for menthol cigarettes is going to disappear once a ban is in place? Does anyone seriously want to create yet another potential for hazardous interactions between Black citizens and law enforcement? That’s why Al Sharpton, in the only sane position he has held in his life, opposes the menthol cigarette ban. So does the ACLU.
And what are we to make of the legalization of marijuana, primarily a white drug of choice, while banning mentholated tobacco? Criminalizing both would at least be consistent. Wrong, but consistent. But legal pot and illegal Newports? That’s just nuts.
The best evidence suggests that America’s public policy choices have disproportionately harmed racial minorities. We must do better. But a ban on a product that is popular in a given community insults the members of that community. It sends the wrong message. Ultimately, it will make things worse.
There are all sorts of self-help organizations within the Black community to help people quit smoking. Smokers, particularly Black smokers who like menthol cigarettes, are not stupid, subhuman, or helpless. They’re human beings like the rest of us, who deserve the opportunity to make their own life choices. To reduce them to feeble pawns unable to take charge of their lives robs them of their humanity.
And we all know what that is called.
Barry Fagin is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can contact Fagin at email@example.com.