FDA considers latest prohibition boondoggle: banning menthol cigarettes

MentholCigarettesWhen something is “bad” for us, is it a legitimate role of government to ban it?  And if so, what are the implications of such a ban?  These are the fundamental questions that need to be asking as we approach the issue of the FDA pushing to ban menthol cigarettes.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has made the claim that menthol cigarettes cause more health risks than non-menthol cigarettes.  Their proposal is — what else? — to ban menthol cigarettes.

“We think the evidence is there, the research is there, for FDA to move quickly to regulate menthol,” said prohibition lobbyist Gregg Haifley, associate director of federal relations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “Every day of delay results in more kids initiating smoking with menthols and fewer people quitting.”

This proposition should concern both smokers and non-smokers alike.  It boils down to something more basic than deciding which cigarettes are the worst.   It can be broken down into several categories.

1. Freedom. 

The claim of increased health hazards is irrelevant to the underlying issue: freedom.  The freedom to choose what you put into your body.  The freedom to perform voluntary transactions with other consenting parties.  What gives the FDA the authority to trump these fundamental rights?

2. Role of Government.

Then there are the political implications.  Should a bunch of unelected bureaucrats have the power to make products of their choosing illegal?   Is it a proper role of government to prohibit some products and promote others?  Should government act as more of an impartial referee or an overbearing babysitter?  Is it desirable for government to tell us how to live and abolish things that are irresponsible?  Does the federal government have the constitutional authority to do this at all?

And if government takes on the role of eliminating anything remotely harmful or irresponsible, the possibilities are truly endless as to how far they could go in acting “for our own good.”  Most Americans eat nutritionally-deficient, chemical-laden food on a daily basis — should it be banned?  Should greasy fast food items be banned so people don’t get fat from eating them?  How about soda and candy?  What about every dangerous activity, exciting hobby, and risky sport?  How much intrusion will we tolerate in order to “save people from themselves?”

3. Economics. 

Another compelling case against prohibition is the economic outcomes that are destined to follow.   Do you want your tax dollars being spent on dictating to others on how to live?  Do you want to pay money to imprison cigarette smugglers?  Do you want your tax dollars propping up one commercial product over another?  Will this new market intervention destroy existing jobs?

Menthols represent a large market share of the tobacco industry, about 30 percent of adult smokers and more than 40 percent of younger smokers.  Menthol cigarettes account for large amounts of some companies’ products.  Lorillard is the company that makes the Newport menthol brand — which accounted for 88 percent of the company’s sales last year, and which is the second-biggest selling U.S. cigarette.

The creation of a black market is another economic outcome.  People will continue to want menthols, and individuals will rise to the occasion to meet that demand.  Smugglers and bootleg cigarette makers will break the law in order to rake in the artificially high prices of the menthols that customers still want.  Just like with any prohibition law, the goods will still be available on the streets, nobody will be any safer, and the organized crime factions will be enriched by their ability to sell expensive items for cash on the streets.

Honest members of law enforcement can see that prohibition adds to violent crime.  As CNBC reported, several large police officer advocacy groups issued statements against the menthol ban.

“If you want to preserve the demand for something, all you’ve got to do is outlaw it,” said ex-Stokes County (N.C.) Sheriff William “Wic” Southern. “I just look at it as another substance like methamphetamine or crack. They’re very much available and people know where to acquire them.”

“The contraband market would thrive under a ban, and would increase criminal activity, including activities by organized crime and terrorist groups,” wrote Paul Carey III, chief of enforcement for the Northern Virginia Cigarette Tax Board.  Carey told CNBC.com that cigarette smuggling is an ongoing problem and linked to violent crime in his jurisdiction.

The FDA has graciously granted the public a 60-day extension period to issue feedback comments, but ultimately the public has no real control over the unelected agency with the power to outlaw consumer products.  The public comment invitation closes November 22.

Some of the usual do-gooder politicians have expressed support of new consumer prohibitions.  “I am pleased that the FDA is now taking this long-overdue measure,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “I urge its leadership to act swiftly to make a science-based decision on this critical public health concern.”

Whether dealing with the prohibition of drugs, guns, incandescent light bulbs, Cuban cigars, pills, plants, knives, beverages, or cigarettes, there is always a web of negative foreseeable consequences that overshadow whatever altruistic motives may have been behind them.  Sweeping decisions that disrupt industries and micromanage people’s personal lives are a very destructive idea. Well-intentioned supporters of prohibition should take a hard look at the repercussions of their policies.

For those who desire power, prohibition is a no-brainer.  Bans are a convenient vehicle for them to wrest more power over the public.  Prohibition consumes tax dollars, clogs the courts, imprisons non-violent people, creates violent black markets, swells government bureaucracies and enforcement agencies, erodes civil liberties, harms the economy, invites corruption, benefits crony corporations, makes it easy for police to frame someone,  and ensures many more destructive outcomes.  Prohibition laws are the jewel of any police state.

Tell the FDA that they would save more lives by ending all deadly prohibition laws.

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