With Congress and President Donald Trump recently raising the tobacco age to 21 and banning various flavored nicotine products, the nanny state’s new target is menthol-flavored cigarettes.
Few products are as loathed by public health campaigners as menthol cigarettes, and not without cause. Just like regular cigarettes, if used as intended, menthol smokers risk cancer and early death. As a result, Rep. Frank Pallone (D, NJ) is now pushing for a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, cigars, and, of course, menthol cigarettes.
The New Jersey Democrat’s proposal would amount to the most sweeping prohibition in 100 years. But the traditional arguments for menthol prohibition are themselves 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 is that it appeals to supposedly naive young people in a way that regular cigarettes don’t — by masking the harsh taste of tobacco smoke. Critics claim menthol is even more addictive than regular cigarettes, thus posing a potentially greater health risk to users and increasing child and adult smoking rates alike.
Our new study shows this is not the case.
Using data from the federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health and industry distribution figures, we examined data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., for the years 2008 to 2018 to determine if there was a strong positive relationship between the distribution of menthol cigarettes and youth smoking.
What we discovered is that states with a bigger proportion of menthol cigarette distribution relative to non-menthol actually had lower rates of child smoking on average. States with the highest levels of distribution 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: Children learn from the adults in their lives, so the more adults who smoke, the more children also smoke. Consequently, the best way to lower the youth smoking rate is not to ban menthol cigarettes but to help their parents and adults in their lives quit smoking.
The 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, 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 were smoking — a record low.
Many menthol opponents will ask about smoking rates among African Americans, since the majority of black people who smoke use menthol products. But according to the latest CDC data, just 3.2 percent of African American teens are smokers, one-third the smoking rate of white teens. 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.
Several exhaustive studies have shown menthol cigarettes to be no more dangerous than regular cigarettes, with menthol smokers tending to live longer on average than non-menthol smokers. This is not because menthol is healthier, but because they smoke fewer cigarettes per day, according to our analysis.
African American adults who smoke are much more likely to smoke menthol, so a major concern is that a menthol ban could lead to black markets, as well as significant discrimination and an increase in law enforcement officers targeting African American communities. History shows that banning a product such as menthol cigarettes disproportionately harms racial minorities as law enforcement targets the people buying and selling them.
Rather than implementing an unnecessary ban that would deliver numerous negative consequences, lawmakers and public health officials should recognize youth smoking is already on the decline and setting record lows without any government intervention. To further improve public health, they should promote adult smoking cessation and approve products that offer safer alternatives to smoking.
This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.