Government misses the mark on Family Smoking Prevention Act

Dann Fry

Earlier this year President Barack Obama signed into existence the toughest new laws ever placed on the tobacco industry. He cited his own struggle to quit the cigarettes he took up as a teenager and praised the new Family Smoking Prevention Act for providing “critically needed protections for future generations.”

The bill is an alarmingly restrictive piece of legislation that cedes an unacceptable amount of power over a legal substance to the government. Specifically, the Act grants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)––notorious for food safety blunders and nonsensical pharmaceutical decisions––unprecedented control of the tobacco industry. The legislation, approved by Congress by a large margin in June, also includes provisions for the ban of all flavored tobacco products, with a special exception for menthol cigarettes.

Menthols make up the vast majority of “flavored” cigarettes, with clove-flavored products coming in second by some amount of billions. Around a quarter of cigarettes smoked domestically are menthols, which would make them a great product to ban in the interest of youth addiction–but, unfortunately, there’s too much money involved. It’s apparently politically impossible to ban menthol cigarettes, so instead the hammer of freedom has fallen on clove cigarettes.

Clove cigarettes are almost exclusively produced in Indonesia and imported to the United States; in fact, the clove cigarette market is one of Indonesia’s largest, and it employs millions. As a matter of international trade and people in developing countries having jobs–questions of Americans’ civil liberties aside–this legislation is absurd.

Whether tobacco should be highly controlled is beside the point––the FDA is interfering with the rights of Americans. When the FDA ceases to simply advise the public (its official role) and actually starts withholding their rights, as is the case with this legislation, there is a problem. A perfect example is the case of the electronic cigarette: the FDA has found it within their power to practically ban them (and numerous other “safer” tobacco products), despite their containing thousands fewer harmful chemicals than real cigarettes.

What’s more, menthol cigarettes––the most popular “flavored” product by a margin of billions––have been repeatedly shown to be more addictive and harder to quit than other cigarettes. Yet they remain legal. If anything, all this legislation will do is put more menthol cigarettes in the hands of smokers (since their competition has now been eliminated), which I very much suspect is the intention of Altria and their US subsidiary Philip Morris, the largest menthol producer in the world. Is it a coincidence that the most popular “flavored cigarette,” produced in various formats almost exclusively by a single company that has a history of getting what they want, remains legal, while foreign “competitors” (cloves represent a meager .09 percent of cigarettes smoked) are banned outright?

The problem with the tobacco industry and youth addiction is not that clove- or chocolate-flavored cigarettes exist. This is like saying there might be less alcoholism if imported flavored vodka was banned. The problem, as it always has, lies in advertising and public perception of cigarettes, an issue which is entirely different and not concerned by this legislation.

The ramifications of this bill go beyond tobacco control. The bill not only completely undercuts the entire system of federal public health regulation in this country, but ensures the loss of thousands––perhaps millions––of foreign tobacco producers’ jobs; it enforces a monopoly by the producers of menthol cigarettes and calls it “critically needed protections” with a few clauses about restricting advertisements in entertainment venues.

The only tangible effects of this legislation will be serious offenses in international trade, an increase in addiction to menthol cigarettes, and more power for the company that makes them. The Family Smoking Prevention Act is a protectionist, cynical, misguided, and completely illogical piece of law that should come as a shock to the voting public; unfortunately, it will almost certainly go unnoticed.