More on menthol: contradictions and implications

As a followup to Carl’s post on the menthol issue and specifically in regards to his paragraph on how someone in harm reduction could be torn between supporting any drop in quality of cigarettes (since that would drive people to lower harm alternatives) and the wish to maintain individual liberty, I would like to add a few related (and unrelated) points.

If you pressure people to safer use by reducing cigarette smoking pleasure there is no reason to believe that such actions will remain specific even to tobacco. As the world generally becomes safer, the minimum standards for safety become ever more stringent and relatively low risk and common every day behaviors might end up generating similar regulatory responses. And then you start worrying about the loss of overall quality of life (as in the salt free future of Demolition Man).

Recall that the argument here has been not that menthol cigarettes are more harmful but that for enough people they are more appealing. Or as one Jonathan Turley put it: “The message seems to be: you can sell tobacco products unless they are too popular with consumers”. But you could just as well argue that for even more people non-menthol cigarettes are more appealing so in a sense you are penalizing smokers who happen to exhibit a certain taste preference. Much has been made of menthol cigarettes being the cigarette of choice in the African American community but could it not have been just as easily concluded that Caucasian Americans overwhelmingly preferred non-menthol cigarettes and perhaps that would be a more effective prohibition? The harm reduction argument of course is that some menthol smokers might stop or switch because they cannot abide non-menthol smoking but I would bet the same would be true of non-menthol smokers contemplating a future of undesired freshness.

If removing menthol products actually resulted in some people quitting (and thus lowering their health risks) this would end up as a benefit. However, it would be a cost if all that happens is that menthol smokers keep smoking but enjoy it less. So if there really is that racial divide on this, nobody is telling African Americans they can’t smoke, just that they won’t be allowed to enjoy it as much as everyone else. I doubt that anyone was really thinking this but it should have popped up on the radar considering that only a few decades ago, it was not uncommon to limit that same community to lower quality goods than would otherwise be the rule.

But to move this up to the level of a more general health-relevant concern, people who advocate reducing product quality have as their purpose reducing consumption and not shifting users to safer sources. What we have seen in tobacco is that the FDA flavoured cigarette ban has ended up being the impetus for attempted bans of all flavoured tobacco products and e-cigarettes. If the menthol debate results in menthol reduction demands for cigarettes, it is pretty well certain that it will generalize to smokeless products as well.

What would resolve the issue (from the harm reduction point of view) is if the same voice that promoted reducing the quality of harmful products would also promote high quality in the less risky products. Lower the menthol in cigarettes but leave it untouched in the safer products and actively promote them as mentholated products.

You need to make switching appealing and not just good for you. Safer alternatives should be given all the leeway in the world to be the tastiest nicotine products available. If product appeal drops across the board, there is less of an incentive for anyone to switch; you might as well then just keep on smoking.

By Paul L. Bergen

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