State lawmakers are moving to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and cigars. When California State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and his 29 co-authors introduced Senate Bill 793 last month, they said stopping youth vaping was the top goal. But Hill also made it clear this law goes much further.
“No flavored tobacco products, no exceptions, regardless of the device, the delivery system, or the product,” Hill said.
Nationally, a similar effort is unfolding. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is working to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products. Pallone’s bill, which recently passed the House, would be the most sweeping federal prohibition in this country in 100 years if signed into law.
While flavored vaping products have received most of the attention lately, both bills target menthol cigarettes. But the traditional arguments for menthol prohibition are a relic of a bygone era when smoking rates were high, cigarette prices were low, and tobacco advertising was ubiquitous.
The most common claim made against menthol today is that it appeals to supposedly naive young people. Critics claim menthol is even more addictive than regular cigarettes, thus posing a potentially greater health risk to users while also increasing child and adult smoking rates. However, our new Reason Foundation study shows that’s not the case.
Using data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health along with industry distribution figures provided by R.J. Reynolds, we examined data from all 50 states from 2008–2018 to determine if there was a strong positive relationship between the distribution of menthol cigarettes and youth smoking rates.
We discovered the states with greater relative menthol cigarette distribution actually had lower rates of child smoking on average. States with higher per capita cigarette distribution levels, of all types of cigarettes, had higher rates of both adult and child smoking on average. The only predictive relationship we found is in line with what the public health literature has shown for decades: kids learn from the adults in their lives so the more adults who smoke, the more the kids smoke. Consequently, the best way to lower the youth smoking rate is not to ban menthol cigarettes but to help their parents and the adults in their lives quit smoking.
The menthol results should not be surprising since the prevalence of menthol has changed dramatically over the last decade. According to an analysis of the National Youth Tobacco Survey data conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of high school smokers using menthol cigarettes fell from 54.5 percent in 2014 to 46.1 percent in 2018. And in 2019, just 5.8 percent of young people said they were smoking—the lowest youth smoking rate ever recorded.
Many menthol opponents will counter by asking about the smoking rates among African Americans since the majority of African Americans who smoke use menthol products. But according to the latest CDC data, just 3.2 percent of African American teens are smokers. That’s one-third the smoking rate of white teenagers. African American youth are, in fact, the least likely to smoke cigarettes of any teen group.
As for African American adults, they smoke at the same rates as white adults. African American adults who smoke are much more likely to smoke menthol than regular cigarettes. With California at the forefront of criminal justice issues, a major concern should be how prohibition would impact the African American community. History suggests that when something like menthol cigarettes are banned, people of color will be disproportionately affected when law enforcement selectively targets the people buying and selling them on the black market. Eric Garner, for example, lost his life while being arrested for allegedly selling cigarettes.
Rather than implementing an unnecessary ban that would deliver numerous negative consequences, California’s lawmakers and public health officials should recognize youth smoking is already on the decline and setting record lows.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.