For years I've argued that a bill authorizing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco products is bad for consumers. I've said the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which Congress is once again considering, would stifle competition, raise prices, reduce variety, block the flow of potentially lifesaving information, and impede the introduction and promotion of safer tobacco products.
Such arguments have attracted remarkably little attention, given that consumer protection is the main rationale for FDA regulation. Now I realize my mistake: I should have said the bill was racist.
In my defense, I did not realize until recently that the bill was racist. Then again, neither did the people making that argument.
Take Joseph Califano, who has been a vociferous opponent of smoking since he served as Jimmy Carter's secretary of health, education and welfare. Despite his longstanding interest in the issue, it seems Califano never got around to reading the tobacco bill, which was first introduced in 2004, or at least did not notice a provision he now deems outrageously discriminatory.
Califano told The New York Times his eyes were opened by Louis Sullivan, secretary of health and human services under George H.W. Bush, who called him to complain that the bill bans all cigarette flavors except menthol. It's not clear why Sullivan only recently got riled up about this provision, which anti-smoking activists have been murmuring about for years.
It may have had something to do with a May 13 New York Times story headlined Cigarette Bill Treats Menthol With Leniency, which reported that "some public health experts are questioning why menthol, the most widely used cigarette flavoring and the most popular cigarette choice of African-American smokers, is receiving special protection as Congress tries to regulate tobacco for the first time." The front-page article quoted William S. Robinson, head of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, who explained that his organization and other anti-smoking groups had gone along with the menthol exemption because it was necessary to placate Philip Morris, the only major cigarette maker supporting the bill.
Philip Morris sells a lot of menthol cigarettes, but the flavors forbidden by the bill are offered only by its competitors. The bill's flavoritism is of a piece with its general tendency to help the industry leader maintain its market dominance.
But Robinson was willing to live with the Philip Morris-favoring menthol compromise until two weeks after the Times story ran, when he announced that his group had withdrawn its support for the bill because "our constituents across the country are just livid." In a June 5 op-ed piece published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Califano, Sullivan and Robinson explained the source of that anger.
"This loophole especially undermines the health of African-Americans," they said, since 75 percent of black smokers prefer menthol brands, compared to 32 percent of white smokers. "The bill blatantly discriminates against African-Americans."
In a June 4 letter that was also signed by five other former health secretaries and one former surgeon general, Califano et al. urged Congress to ban menthol cigarettes. Since the rationale for banning flavored cigarettes is that kids like them, the letter said, the menthol exception "sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters."
There are other ways to look at it. Given that white menthol smokers outnumber black menthol smokers by three to one, maybe this isn't such a black thing after all. Alternatively, since the bill allows blacks to smoke the cigarettes they prefer, a freedom it does not allow whites who like clove cigarettes or Camel Cremas, you could argue that it discriminates in favor of blacks.
People who want to ban flavored cigarettes, of course, believe that letting smokers have what they want is a hostile act. But if so, the fact that the bill allows tobacco companies to continue selling the non-mentholated cigarettes overwhelmingly preferred by whites suggests that it blatantly discriminates against European Americans.