I have long opposed legislation designed to force consumers to make more healthy choices by banning certain products like New York’s unlawful “Big Gulp” law under then Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Now, the Biden Administration is moving forward to ban menthol cigarettes because they are too popular with consumers.
In April 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed rules prohibiting menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is now moving forward to “help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit” and “to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”
Tobacco remains a lawful product. These measures are not based on a finding that menthol or flavoring increases the carcinogenic risk of smoking. Rather, the fear is that they are too popular and will only serve to increase sales. It is the same premise used to ban advertising at sporting events and calls to put graphic imagery on products.
It is akin to pushing green energy policies by banning a non-electric car model because it is wildly popular. If the Administration wants to seek a ban on tobacco, it should do so. However, consumers should be allowed lifestyle choices, including unhealthy choices from high-fat diets to alcohol abuse.
These paternalistic measures tend to only shift costs and markets. If the consumers want menthol cigarettes, they are likely to turn to the black market with the assistance of criminal gangs smuggling the products over the border. It is a variation of the Coase theorem where an “entitlement” will not necessarily dictate outcomes. It can raise and shift costs. In terms of the outcome, the market often controls: The question is not simply what law favors but what is more valued by the consumers. The Administration can add transactional costs, but it is the market demand that is likely to drive supply. Transactional costs can alter the outcome, but those costs must overwhelm the market demand.
If this proves correct, the move will fuel a criminal black market while reducing tax revenues.
I do not question the danger of these products in reaching younger potential smokers. I also enthusiastically support government educational programs designed to discourage young people from using this addictive product. Smoking carries a terrible price for users and society. However, so long as it is a lawful product, individuals should be allowed to make these decisions over their own health and lifestyle.