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One of the most enduring lessons of American history is that the banning of liquor sales and consumption (“the noble experiment”) was a colossal failure. Drinking didn’t go down much, but the profits ended up going not to legitimate businesses but bootleggers and the mob, while the murder rate soared to all-time highs in American history. It was the policy that made America’s most famous gangster, Al Capone, famous — and rich.
I was reminded of this when I saw recently that the Biden administration’s Food and Drug Administration wants to ban menthol cigarettes. Menthol flavorings account for approximately 37% of cigarette sales. That demand will not disappear but it will be driven underground, creating more significant risks to consumers.
Ninety years after the failure of Prohibition, we are going to try it again with smokers. Ironically, many of the same liberals who campaigned for three decades for the legalization of marijuana and other soft drugs (something I generally support) now want to effectively ban smoking.
The FDA’s proposed rule would “prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and all characterizing flavors (other than tobacco) in cigars.” The government justifies its action because it has “the potential to significantly reduce disease and death from combusted tobacco product use.”
That sounds a lot like a reprise of what the temperance league told us about alcohol prohibition: “Alcohol prohibition will save lives, reduce crime, cure social ills, and improve the nation’s health.”
But even if all these virtuous results were true, since when is the United States government empowered to regulate the health and riskiness of America’s personal habits? Don’t we have a right as Americans to do things that are bad for us? Or do we slouch toward a nanny state?
There are a lot of dangerous activities that Americans take great pleasure in and choose to do even though they are risky — rock climbing, parachuting out of airplanes, driving a motorcycle and eating too much sugar (a sin that I am definitely guilty of) are prominent examples. Remember when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to stop obesity by banning Big Gulps? Reading the misinformation in The New York Times is bad for you — but I wouldn’t ban the newspaper.
We should have learned from the mostly failed war on drugs that the main impact was to enrich drug dealers. Instead of the government getting funds by taxing pot (as many states do now), the money went to the drug cartels, crime syndicates and street corner drug dealers.
I’m not a smoker; I don’t smoke; and I don’t like it when people smoke around me and I have to inhale and smell the cigar or cigarette smoke. I taught my kids not to smoke or use drugs, and smoking cessation programs in schools make a lot of sense.
I have friends who died far too young because of their chain-smoking habits. On the other hand, I do, on rare occasions, smoke cigarettes, especially when stressed out. It relaxes me, just as I sometimes take chewables at night when I am having trouble falling asleep. I don’t want a government official yanking the cigarette out of my mouth.
The strangest and most illogical thing of all about this call to ban menthol is that it comes at a time when smoking is rarer today than at any time in at least 100 years and probably since the founding of our country. In the last 60 years, smoking has fallen by more than 60% in virtually all age groups, especially among the young. Anti-smoking education campaigns are working. Don’t change a winning strategy.
An FDA prohibition could backfire by making smoking “cool” and “sexy” again. When I was in high school and my friends and I would occasionally head to the beach and puff on marijuana joints, part of the thrill was precisely that it was verboten. We were teenage rebels without a cause, and we were acting like James Dean.
We should also consider that the government is also collecting billions of dollars of tax revenues from smokers. Driving cigarette sales underground puts the money into the hands of the criminals.
Yes, keep cigarettes out of the hands of kids. But let adults, not the government regulators, make their own decisions about the risks of smoking.