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OPINION

Black smokers don't need white saviors

Posted on January 30, 2021

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A coalition of 23 attorneys general, including North Carolina's Josh Stein, is asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes.

Stock photo | Pixabay

A coalition of 23 attorneys general, including North Carolina's Josh Stein, is asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes.

cfriedman@wilsontimes.com | 252-265-7813

Corey Friedman

Corey Friedman

When it comes to deceptive marketing, Big Tobacco is no match for big government.

A coalition of 23 attorneys general is asking the Food and Drug Administration to ban menthol cigarettes, and the broadside against consumer freedom is carefully cloaked in appeals for social justice.

In a Jan. 22 letter to the FDA, the prosecutors take pains to point out that menthol smokers are disproportionally Black. They cite a study showing 89% of African Americans who smoke prefer menthol while only 26% of white smokers choose the mint-flavored tobacco.

“It is important to protect vulnerable populations, and in this regard, disparities in menthol cigarette use demand action,” the letter states.

“Protect” is the operative word. These arrogant AGs, a majority of whom are white, somehow believe it’s their sworn duty to save African Americans from themselves.

In North Carolina, the nation’s top tobacco-producing state, Attorney General Josh Stein sold his support for a menthol ban with a prediction that the policy change will “help mitigate harm to communities of color,” as a press release on his website says. Yet those communities are sharply divided on the issue.

When the U.S. House debated a bill to ban flavored cigarettes and vape cartridges in February 2020, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., warned that outlawing menthol could increase overpolicing of Black neighborhoods and become a pretense for aggressive enforcement tactics.

One borough over from her Brooklyn congressional district, Clarke noted, police killed Eric Garner while subduing him with a chokehold, and the altercation began when officers accused him of selling loose cigarettes.

“A ban that targets menthol products but ignores other premium tobacco products unduly burdens the Black community,” Clarke wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. “This asymmetrical ban feels more like a targeted attack than a value-neutral health care policy decision.”

While the NAACP endorsed a menthol ban, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network joined the American Civil Liberties Union and five other civil rights groups opposing the legislation, which passed the House but died in the Senate under then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. His home state of Kentucky is No. 2 in tobacco production.

Despite that setback, restrictionists continued to rack up victories. In December 2019, then-President Donald Trump signed a law increasing the minimum purchase age for tobacco products from 18 to 21. The following month, the FDA announced a crackdown on flavored e-cigarettes, which it blocked from store shelves by declining to issue premarket authorization under its regulatory authority.

Fruit-flavored vape juice that makes nicotine taste like candy isn’t your grandfather’s pack of Lucky Strikes. Mentholated smokes have been widely available since the late 1920s. In 2018, they accounted for more than a third of all U.S. cigarettes sold.

Smoking rates have steadily declined since 1965, when 42.6% of U.S. adults smoked cigarettes. Just 13.7% of adults were habitual smokers in 2018, according to the American Lung Association, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. That’s an undeniably positive trend, as tobacco use causes cancer, emphysema, high blood pressure and various heart, lung and vascular diseases.

The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement that wrested a $206 billion payout from the nation’s largest tobacco companies spawned public awareness campaigns, limits on cigarette advertising and smoking cessation programs. Those measures helped countless smokers kick the habit without narrowing the range of products they could lawfully buy.

Anti-smoking advocates understood their role as educating people and then supporting and reinforcing their voluntary decision to quit. They’ve been replaced with nanny-state apologists who favor coercion over persuasion. But their selective outrage doesn’t extend to the harmful behaviors from which they profit.

Among the 23 jurisdictions represented in the FDA letter, only two — Hawaii and Nevada — are without state lotteries. Peer-reviewed studies show gambling has a disproportionate impact on African Americans, but expecting attorneys general to interfere with government-run monopolies is a sucker bet.

Feigning concern over Black communities’ health to sell a regulatory power grab smacks of condescension. Taking choices away by administrative edict doesn’t empower people to make better choices. It robs them of agency and transfers power from consumers to bureaucrats.

That’s not a principled stand for racial justice. It’s just plain old paternalism.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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