Federal Flavored Cigarette Ban is Moral Self-Regulation Writ Large

menthol-cigarettesThe federal ban on flavored cigarettes, mandated by the same law that empowers the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, is now in full effect.  The rationale for the law is that flavored cigarettes are targeted to minors — despite the fact that most of those who use them are adults.

Intriguingly, the FDA is being purposefully unclear about whether the ban also applies to the burgeoning flavored cigar industry.  Cigar brands like CAO have been hauling in a mint from sales of flavored mini-cigars (‘cigarillos’) with names like Bella Vanilla and Moontrance.  The market for these? Affluent adults.  Long-established, cheaper brands like Swisher Sweets might also be subject to the ban, or not.  Quoting from the New York Times:

At a news conference on Tuesday, agency officials were deliberately vague when asked whether the ban would apply to the growing market of flavored small cigars like Swisher Sweets or cigarillos like Black & Mild, which can have flavors like apple and chocolate.

In a letter to manufacturers, the agency said the ban applied to all cigarette-like tobacco products even if they “are labeled as cigars or as some other product.” And in another document to manufacturers, the agency wrote that it was “examining options for regulating both menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco products other than cigarettes.”

Dr. Lawrence Deyton [director of the FDA’s new Center for Tobacco Products] was asked several times on a conference call with reporters if the ban applied to any small cigars or cigarillos. “According to the law, if something is wrapped in a tobacco leaf, that would not be considered…” he said and then stopped and added, “Hold on just a second.”

After a delay, Catherine Lorraine, a lawyer in the agency’s tobacco center, got on the call and said that if consumers believe a product is a cigarette, then the law defines it as one no matter how it is wrapped or labeled.  “We will be looking at products on an individual basis to determine if it meets that aspect of the legislation,” Ms. Lorraine said. 

Adding to the confusion, the law contains one notable exception: menthol cigarettes.  Menthol smokes are a huge profit center for tobacco giant Phillip Morris, which, not incidentally, happened to be the only tobacco company supporting the ban. 

Of all flavored cigarettes, menthol is hands down the one kids want the most.  According to a 2006 survey of American smoking habits published in the American Journal of Public Health, significantly more adolescent and young adult smokers preferred menthol brands. Between the ages of 12 and 17, 43.8% of smokers said they used menthol cigarettes, as did 35.6% of 18 to 24-year-olds.  In addition, 70% of African American smokers smoke menthol cigs, with the biggest demographic being African American women ages 18 to 30 (according to the NIH).   If ever there was a “gateway” cigarette, it’s menthol.

So what’s going on here?  We have a ban on flavored cigarettes–that may or may not include flavored cigars–based on a dubious claim that kids are swarming to suck them down–except, the one flavor that we have plenty of research on proving that it’s the favorite of minors is excluded. 

The FDA is engaging in an immense display of moral self-regulation. I’ve discussed this topic on my other blog, Neuronarrative, here, (and True/Slant’s own Ryan Sager has too). The upshot is that individuals engage in moral behavior in some parts of their lives to offset deficits in others.  For example, someone who never remembers to recycle cans and bottles becomes a Nazi about turning off all the lights in the house to save energy.  Or, someone who smokes two packs a day donates money to the local children’s hospital, etc. 

It seems that what the FDA is doing is banning some flavored cigarettes (and perhaps cigars) to offset the fact that they are not banning menthol cigarettes.  This is tantamount to banning all SUVs because they use too much gas, excluding Cadillac Escalades.  Obviously, Phillip Morris has the FDA by the short hairs, and thus the one flavored cigarette that makes the most sense to ban will not be banned — it’ll just have a lot less competition for kids’ lungs. 

The difference between this monstrous variety of moral see sawing and the kind we engage in is a matter of degree.  When we do it, the impact is relatively limited. When the federal government does it, the impact is massive — and in this case I’m not talking about the ban itself, but the hypocricy implicit in the ban. We all have to swallow that, and the flavor is anything but appealing.

hat tip: Reason Magazine

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