The intent to limit the public health costs of tobacco, especially among youth, is to be applauded. However, blanket bans on menthol cigarettes may promote inequities in the criminal justice system, push sales of cigarettes and tax revenue to other jurisdictions and increase the illicit tobacco trade while failing to improve public health.
Cigarette smoking in the U.S. has decreased steadily over the decades. The most pronounced decline in smoking has been among young people, with just 1.6 percent of middle school and high school students saying they have smoked a cigarette in the past month according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adult smoking has also collapsed to 11.5 percent, the CDC finds.
Despite these successes, there is a fresh impetus to ban menthol cigarettes on the alleged grounds that these menthol products are particularly attractive to youth, harder to quit, and increase health inequities.
Of the small population of youth smokers, almost 60 percent use a non-menthol product, according to the CDC survey. While it’s true that the majority of black Americans who smoke use menthol products, black youth smoke at lower rates than other groups of young people, the CDC finds.
In fact, the American Cancer Society finds a major reason for the narrowing of cancer disparities between the black and white populations is that black Americans have quit smoking at a faster rate or have refused to start smoking in the first place in greater numbers than whites. And evidence from Vanderbilt University also shows no difference in quit rates between menthol and non-menthol smokers regardless of race.
Criminal justice reforms and fiscal concerns
- In 2020, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. Sales of cigarettes in the neighboring states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island skyrocketed, and Massachusetts lost $125 million in tax revenue in its 2021 fiscal year. However, Massachusetts’ smoking rate barely budged, with a decline of just 0.5 percentage points in 2021.
- According to the Massachusetts Multi-Agency Illegal Tobacco Task Force, the menthol ban has created the need for harsher criminal penalties to help deter the growing illicit market, and it says more storage space needs to be leased to house confiscated products.
- Because minority smokers disproportionately use menthol products, minority communities are acutely vulnerable to the illicit menthol market, which could increase police interactions between communities of color and law enforcement.
A harm-reduction alternative to menthol prohibition
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized several e-cigarettes, oral tobacco, and heated tobacco products as “appropriate for the protection of public health” because they’re safer than cigarettes and help smokers quit. Allowing adults to use these products can reduce smoking rates more effectively than menthol bans, without unintended consequences.
With adult and youth smoking rates reaching generational lows and still falling, there is little reason to risk the severe unintended consequences of using the blunt force of prohibition to reduce smoking rates further.