Back in June we noted that the FDA was about to get a lot more say over the tobacco industry if the Senate approved a new bill. Well they did, and so yesterday the FDA flexed its new muscles by banning fruit, herb, spice, and candy flavorings from cigarettes. That’s right: clove cigarettes were just banned by the FDA, which is bad news for gothy teens and great news for everyone else.
But one particular herb wasn’t banned (emphasis ours):
…a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.
Menthol cigarettes make up about 28% of the industry’s profits, according to this New York Times article from last summer about the same legislation. Some menthol brands actually contain the highest amounts of nicotine of any cigarettes, making them potentially more addictive. And sadly, menthols have been deliberately marketed to African Americans for decades, in an attempt to create a thriving market for a specific group. It worked—75% of menthol cigarettes in the U.S. are smoked by African Americans.
So why wasn’t menthol included on the banned additives list? Why was a subset of Americans neglected in this wide-reaching smackdown on tobacco products? Aside from the fact that banning menthols would cut between a quarter to a third of the profit out of the industry and waste decades of niche marketing, the Act that gave the FDA this power was co-authored by ginormous tobacco company Philip Morris (now called Altria), which had a clear incentive to keep menthols on the market and to shut out the flavored cigarettes that smaller competitors have been introducing. (Sort of like how the big toy companies pushed through the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act—CPSIA—last year that put large financial burdens on small toy companies.)
As Paul Smalera at Slate’s “The Big Money” points out, this Philip Morris piece of legislative maneuvering puts the FDA in a bad place:
In other words, the United States will have two choices in the above scenario, both hairy: protect the FDA’s independence by admitting it banned cloves but not menthols only to protect Philip Morris’ [Altria's] market share or let the FDA manufacture an explanation, contrary to recent studies, by which menthol cigarettes, which are used to lure children to smoke, are just as safe as unflavored cigarettes.
“Up in smoke: FDA bans flavored cigarettes” [Consumer Reports]
“Black Lawmakers Seek Restrictions on Menthol Cigarettes “ [New York Times]
“Cool, Refreshing Legislation for Philip Morris” [The Big Money]