freedom isn’t free, and neither are cigarettes

Back in June, to remarkably little fanfare, Congress overwhelmingly voted to place tobacco companies under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. To the extent that anybody heard about this, I’m sure that most people thought, “It wasn’t already?” But it turns out that this legislative decision has some peculiar results.

First, as noted by the Wall Street Journal at the time, the bill may have the unintended effect of consolidating the position of Philip Morris, the country’s largest tobacco company — not least because it allows the FDA to impose a ban on products introduced since 2007, which hamstrings tobacco companies that are trying to find new ways to become competitive again. Many firms had experimented with new smokeless products like snus and dissolving tobacco pellets — those will be put on hold. Sayeth NPR: “FDA regulation would help Philip Morris stay on top by making it harder for competitors to bring out new tobacco products.”

Philip Morris seems to agree, according to the Journal:

[Philip Morris parent company] Altria praised the legislation overall, saying it will require all tobacco makers to operate “at the same high standards.” The company said, however, that it has First Amendment concerns about some advertising curbs.

Yeah — no doubt.

The FDA got off to a slow start imposing its mighty will on tobacco manufacturers, no doubt taking its time to determine how best to improve public health through sensible regulation. Finally, as of yesterday — and again this has passed largely unnoticed — the sale of fruit- and candy-flavored cigarettes is now illegal in the United States. If you can’t think of a candy- or fruit-flavored cigarette, that’s probably because you don’t consider cloves fruits, which is stupid of you. Like tomatoes and beef, cloves are fruits that aren’t generally recognized as such. (I should probably admit here that I studied biology in a Georgia high school. And flunked it.)

But botany aside, here’s the core argument FDA officials are making for the ban:

“Almost 90 percent of adult smokers start smoking as teenagers. These flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D….

Flavors make cigarettes and other tobacco products more appealing to youth. Studies have shown that 17 year old smokers are three times as likely to use flavored cigarettes as smokers over the age of 25.

Of course, this is a blatant misuse of statistics. (See here for an excellent if elementary discussion of the use of numbers in public health debates.) Young people may be three times as likely to smoke flavored cigarettes, but flavored cigarettes still constitute only the tiniest fraction of cigarettes smoked by young people. This isn’t a real attempt to reduce teen smoking — it’s a (not-terribly-effective) publicity stunt for the FDA, a way of looking busy.

Clove cigarettes are a novelty, smoked by a few college students who want to affect a Continental air but don’t think they can pull off a beret or overt Marxism. Meanwhile flavored pipe tobacco is excluded from the ban, which is hilarious, because if there’s anything that makes you seem more “college sophomore” than a clove cigarette, it’s a pipe filled with some nice vanilla-tinged Cavendish.

Meanwhile, guess what flavor is specifically excluded from the ban? If you guessed menthol, you’re probably a tobacco industry executive who realizes that 28.6% of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. are menthol-flavored. Since you’re an exec in the know, you’re probably also familiar with this Harvard study that finds that cigarette manufacturers specifically adjusted menthol levels to attract young, first-time smokers.

But why should you, a mid-level manager in a reviled industry, stick your neck out to defend menthol when the Congressional Black Caucus will do it for you? Again from the Journal:

The new ban… isn’t expected to have a big financial impact. Menthol cigarettes are initially exempt from the ban because of demands from the Congressional Black Caucus. About 75% of African-American smokers buy menthol brands.

That’s right. At a time when our nation’s first black president is being repeatedly and forcefully slandered with racist imagery and millions of black citizens make do without adequate health care, the CBC is taking time out to make sure that black people aren’t discriminated against in the cigarette market. Well done, gang. Way to bolster a stereotype.

Personally, I find the ban on cloves both offensive and stupid. It’s stupid because cloves will now, in addition to seeming cool and vaguely exotic, also give young people the mild thrill of a barely illegal activity. Cloves will be like pot, but instead of making you fat and listless they’ll make you thin and hypercreative. People will smuggle them in from Turkey and Indonesia and they’ll be smoked by campus lefties with the same sense of unearned, smug naughtiness with which Cuban cigars are meanwhile being smoked across the quad by Young Republicans.

But it’s offensive because it’s punitive conservative values writ large. Years ago, I knew a British ex-pat motorcycle enthusiast, a burly, freewheeling guy who was not remotely induced to give up his hobby by being thrown 50 feet through the air in a collision with an SUV. He was the sort of fellow who grumbled a lot about things like helmet and seatbelt laws, because he didn’t see why it was anyone’s business if he splattered his brains on the asphalt. When I pointed out to him that someone would have to pay for his medical care, he admitted, “If the government actually provided health care, the way it does in Britain, then it would have a vested interest in saying I have to wear a helmet. But until it does, it has no business telling me what to do.”

I found this a very persuasive argument. Want to tell me I can’t smoke because it’s bad for me? Want to institute a tax on my sweet, sweet sodas? Then draw the line for me — show me how it’s the public’s business what I do to my body. If I have private insurance or, ha-ha, pay for my medical care directly, then the government can take its nose out of my private activities, thank you very much.

If, on the other hand, the government would like to provide quality, affordable, universal health care, I’d be happy to consider a ban on smokes and Cokes in the name of our collective purse.

But until that glorious day, I’ll be lighting up my pipe tobacco (that’s right, I smoke like a college sophomore — what are you going to do about it?) any time I damn well please. And if I someday find the Lentil smoking cloves, I’ll probably lecture my young progeny sternly and confiscate the pleasantly-scented contraband. But to myself, I’ll smile — “That’s my little liberal arts major! Now go earn Daddy some of that good art history money.”


3 responses to “freedom isn’t free, and neither are cigarettes

  1. Well damn, who knew beef was a fruit?

    And if you don’t have private health insurance and have a catastrophic accident, the public does pick up the tab, so the gov does have a vested interest in helmets and seat belts. It isn’t just the initial expense of repairing your fractured skull, it is also all the follow-up therapy and support for the resulting brain damage.

    • That’s true. Maybe it shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to the state refusing to pick up the tab if you weren’t wearing your seat belt/helmet. That’s what the military does. If you aren’t using appropriate safety equipment and you die because of it, the military doesn’t have to pay out life insurance to your family.

  2. Sounds reasonable to me.

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