New York Gov. Kathy Hochul claims her plan to ban flavored tobacco products and raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack is about improving public health. The proposed prohibition encompasses cigars, hookah, and even products like Mint General Snus, which the Food and Drug Administration says are “appropriate for the protection of public health.” But the governor’s main target is menthol cigarettes, disproportionately used by black smokers. So far, the state legislature has demonstrated an admirable skepticism toward the proposed ban.
Gov. Hochul’s flawed theory is that banning menthol products would substantially reduce smoking in the black community. But Massachusetts was the first state to implement a similar ban in June 2020, and things have not gone to plan.
A new study led by the principal scientist in tobacco research at the American Cancer Society shows Massachusetts’ menthol ban produced a 56.8% relative decline in smoking among black men compared to other states. But smoking among black women increased by 58.6% after the ban. With the research finding that black men and black women in Massachusetts were smoking at equal rates before the ban, the study implies that menthol prohibition was associated with an overall increase in smoking among black adults in Massachusetts.
The results are remarkable, as the American Cancer Society vocally supports menthol prohibition. Yet its lead researcher found Massachusetts’ ban, on net, likely did more harm than good among the people it was supposed to help the most.
After the Massachusetts ban, Reason Foundation found that cigarette sales exploded in neighboring states. Approximately 33 million additional packs of cigarettes were sold in neighboring counties in the year after the ban. Massachusetts’ Multi-Agency Illegal Tobacco Task Force says its inspectors are “routinely” seizing menthol cigarettes brought in from other states. Now, the agency is asking for new criminal provisions— laws and harsher penalties— to help slow illicit trade. The flavored tobacco ban is spawning a downward spiral where criminalizing the sale of previously legal products creates more problems necessitating further criminalization. And New York should expect the same.
“Banning a substance used primarily by Black and Brown adults will increase racial profiling, police interactions, and underreported stops in New York City. Moreover, this is a discriminatory ban because it will not affect the sale of non-mentholated cigarettes, which white smokers prefer,” Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network wrote to Politico.
A flavored tobacco ban would turbocharge New York’s already thriving black market. According to the Tax Foundation, more than half the cigarettes sold in New York—the highest percentage in the country—come from out of state due to New York’s high taxes. The menthol ban would further increase illegal tobacco sales, which could cost New York as much as $455 million in lost tax revenue.
Gov. Hochul and supporters of prohibition claim menthol is particularly dangerous.
“What we’re concerned about is the highly addictive properties of menthol because it has more soothing ingredients that makes it easier to smoke more,” Hochul said. “And it’s more of an attraction to young people to start out on the path of a lifetime of smoking addiction.”
In reality, the majority of young people who smoke do not use menthol products. Additionally, menthol smokers smoke fewer cigarettes daily and quit smoking at the same rates as non-menthol smokers.
The weak public health arguments for the menthol ban are based on misrepresentations. A similar flavored tobacco prohibition in Massachusetts has been an epic failure. And New York’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes would be especially insidious because it is explicitly racially targeted at the very community it purports to help.
Gov. Hochul should abandon this wrongheaded war on menthol.