I have long been a critic of government bans on lawful products to prevent consumers from making poor health or lifestyle choices, including Michael Bloomberg’s failed effort to ban “Big Gulp” sodas. Now a group of African-American doctors are asking President Obama to ban the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes because they are too popular with black smokers. We can certainly have a debate over a possible prohibition of tobacco products as inherently dangerous. However, if tobacco use remains lawful to smoke or sell (as I believe it should be), there are serious legal and policy problems with a ban on a product solely because it is too popular with one group.
The African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council have called on the action from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Dr. Philip Gardiner, council co-chairman, has argued that “Young African-Americans die disproportionately from tobacco-related disease compared to other people in the population.” I do not question the statistic but why not call for a total ban? Even with the elimination of menthol cigarettes (which Gardiner notes “go down easier”), another product is likely to replace those cigarettes as the preferred product. Moreover, if another product has a pronounced popularity with the Asian community, will that product also be banned as we target the most successful products in any given community?
It is certainly true that menthol cigarettes have been flagged (in 2013) by the FDA as a greater risk than conventional cigarettes, but that is due to the fact that many find the taste better. It becomes increasingly absurd for us to ban products that people like while insisting that they have a right to smoke. We continue to spend copious amounts on education and there is evidence that it is working. However, people still enjoy free will in a free country. You are allowed to make bad choices.
If these doctors have been unsuccessful in convincing black smokers to drop this product, they should not turn to the government to simply force their will on other citizens. I honestly commend their efforts and their passion to fight this scourge within the African-American community. However, in the end, the decision rests with consumers.
What do you think?