A new study examining menthol cigarette bans in Canadian provinces shows prohibition failed to achieve its central objective; reducing youth smoking.
According to the study published in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), “Survey data confirm that provincial menthol bans significantly increased non-menthol cigarette smoking among youths, resulting in no overall net change in youth smoking rates.”
As for adult smokers, the study discovered, “…provincial menthol bans shifted smokers’ cigarette purchases away from grocery stores and gas stations to First Nations reserves (where the menthol bans do not bind).”
Conducted by professors Christopher Carpenter of Vanderbilt and Hai V. Nguyen at Memorial University Newfoundland, the study is the first of its kind to evaluate the real-world effects of menthol prohibition comprehensively. The results are not promising for those who claim menthol bans will produce enormous public health benefits.
“While we find clear evidence that the bans reduced menthol cigarette sales and menthol cigarette use, we also find that the bans are unlikely to be a panacea for reducing youth smoking rates because youths substitute toward non-menthol cigarettes,” say the authors.
Examining several provinces that implemented menthol bans at different times from 2015 to 2017, the authors reviewed sales data of menthol and non-menthol cigarettes combined with survey data on youth and adult smoking. Unsurprisingly, the paper found the bans proved effective at eliminating the legal sale of menthol cigarettes. But following the announcement of a menthol prohibition, consumers were found to have stockpiled menthol cigarettes before enactment.
The study didn’t find evidence of substitution among adults but did conclude there was evasion. Bans were associated with an increased probability of adults reporting they’d bought cigarettes from a First Nations reserve (where menthol bans do not apply) and significant reductions in the likelihood that smokers bought their cigarettes from gas stations or grocery stores.
The authors conclude that the “…overall effect on adult smoking is somewhat blunted by the evasion of menthol bans toward First Nations reserve purchases.”
The study failed to find any significant impact on smoking rates or quitting behaviors for either youths or adults.
The paper was subject to some important limitations, with the period in question being relatively short. Survey respondents may also have been more likely to report having quit smoking menthol cigarettes because of desirability bias. The authors also didn’t take into account the utility lost by individuals who prefer smoking menthol.
The political argument for menthol prohibition typically rests on a few key assumptions — that menthol is more popular with kids than regular cigarettes, is easier to start using, and harder to quit. If all of these assumptions are true, the argument for prohibition goes, banning menthol cigarettes would significantly reduce both youth and adult smoking.
Prohibitionists often point to surveys of menthol smokers, suggesting that if their product of choice were made illegal, they’d quit smoking. But these ‘stated preferences’ are of little value. What matters is their ‘revealed preferences’ — how they actually behave, rather than how they say they would behave.
Suggestions that menthol prohibition may result in black market activity or that young people could switch to other tobacco products are often dismissed as scaremongering or unfounded in evidence. Similarly, criminal justice concerns, voiced by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are often brushed aside by prohibitionists arguing the use and possession of menthol cigarettes won’t be criminalized, only their manufacture and sale will. Yet, the same was said for alcohol prohibition.
This research on Canada’s experience should give U.S. lawmakers second thoughts before reaching for menthol bans as a solution to the already historically low rates of youth smoking.