With a new policy intended to “significantly reduce disease and death” caused by menthol cigarettes as well as all flavored cigars, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last week they will take steps to ban such products over the next year.
While in office, President Trump banned all flavored vapes and President Biden is picking up exactly where his predecessor left off. This shouldn’t be surprising, however, as the only bipartisan idea in Washington today is that the government’s role in the everyday life of Americans should be expanded.
There is no better example of this than the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Garner was unarmed, and his only crime was selling banned cigarettes. When the officers went to arrest Garner, one of them used a chokehold — which was against New York Police Departmetn rules — for a prolonged period. This chokehold led to Garner losing consciousness, and dying about an hour later. All of this over a few loose cigarettes.
The truth is that, despite its good intentions, this policy could not be more misguided.
Government’s Role In Regulating Substances
First and foremost, to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars would be to violate fundamental principles of individual liberty, as the government should have an extremely limited role in banning consumer goods. The role of government in a free society is to protect one’s rights from being violated by his or her fellow citizens, not to ensure that individuals never make adverse personal decisions.
Smoking menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars may be a poor decision — I personally believe that it is — but it is certainly not infringing on anybody else’s rights when one freely decides to do so. Furthermore, as it is in this case as well, the standard being applied when advocating for government prohibition of certain products is often unintelligible.
It is true that nearly 500,000 people die in the United States every year due to smoking. If one believes, however, that this is a legitimate basis for the government to ban certain types of smoking, then it may be important to also note that 300,000 Americans die due to obesity every year, as do almost 100,000 people due to alcohol.
Should these figures be a pretext for the government to ban fatty foods, sugary drinks, and all alcohol as well? Most people — even those celebrating the FDA’s announcement — would say no. But this fact just demonstrates how non-existent a standard is for the consumer goods that the government decides to ban in the interest of the health of the general public.
Prohibition Has a Bad Track Record
This is not the first time the U.S. government has decided to ban substances they deemed to be harmful. In the early 20th century, when the prohibition of alcohol was implemented, many of the same arguments we are now hearing to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars were made. They were just as misguided then as they are now.
Prohibition was supposed to reduce alcohol consumption; it didn’t.
Prohibition was supposed to reduce crime; it increased it.
Prohibition was supposed to make people healthier; instead, it led them to use even more harmful drugs.
A similar story unfolded in the aftermath of the war on drugs during the late 1900s. It did not lead to its intended goal — a safer world where Americans no longer used drugs — but to a world where a black market run by cartels made everyone less safe. The Cato Institute notes it is “not that drug use leads to violence,” but that “violence in drug markets may instead result from the institutional context created by prohibition.”
About prohibiting menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, it is foolish to believe that it would result in anything different than the previous attempts. This will not reduce the number of people smoking; rather, it will simply increase the number of people illegally smoking. Increasing the number of illegal activities — as this regulation does — will inevitably lead to more unnecessary interactions between civilians and the police.
While police have an extraordinarily hard job, and generally do well at it, the sad truth is that the more police-civilian interactions there are, the more likely it is that life will be lost without reason. The Garner story painfully illustrates this reality.
While the new regulation does not mandate criminal enforcement on black market sales, the American Civil Liberties Union correctly notes that “such a ban will trigger criminal penalties.” Even though the FDA claims this ban will help to save lives in minority communities, it is precisely those communities that would be disproportionately harmed by more unnecessary drug laws. The effects of the war on drugs on minority communities clearly demonstrate just that.
While advocates of prohibition assure us that it will lead to a cleaner, safer, and healthier society, the truth is much different.
Alternative Solutions and the Path Ahead
Just because one believes that government-mandated prohibitions on substances are imprudent does not mean he does not recognize that there is a problem at hand. It is absolutely true that far too many Americans smoke, drink in excess, and eat terribly unhealthily. Yet there are paths outside of government that we can take to create a better society.
The only way to reduce the number of people smoking is by demonstrating that there is a better option. It’s up to us to show that the costs of smoking far outweigh the benefits. No government regulation can do this. It is for this reason that various studies in the European Union, Canada, and the state of Massachusetts all find that the impact of menthol cigarette bans has been minimal.
Rather, it is up to local communities, schools, parents, houses of worship, and activist groups to turn the tide of public opinion against smoking. Tremendous ground has already been made — as the percentage of people who smoke in a given week shrunk from 41 percent to 15 percent between 1954 and 2019 — but that progress happened because individuals decided that it was better to avoid smoking.
In a study on the reasons that smokers quit, just 0.5 percent of people cited smoking bans as the reason, whereas more than 75 percent cited health concerns. The truth is that the best way to prevent smoking is by convincing enough of our fellow citizens of its harms.
Moving forward, it will be imperative that Americans begin to understand government action is not the only way to address real, substantive problems in our communities. True, genuine progress won’t ever come about through government impositions, but through persuading hearts and minds. Ultimately, any other way of causing a change of behavior is doomed to failure.