Ordinarily, we have no problem branding laws “racist” when they disproportionately affect a particular ethnic group. Often this occurs in the case of drug policy: heavy penalties for crack cocaine and relative leniency for powder cocaine is sometimes called racist because users of crack cocaine are overwhelmingly black.
So I wonder whether it’s not too outrageous to ask whether the European Union’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes isn’t, at a bare minimum, racially ignorant.
In the US cigarette market, at least 70 per cent of African-American smokers smoke mentholated cigarettes. Among younger smokers that figure rises to 80 per cent, compared with only about a quarter of white smokers. Some people have the number as high as 92 per cent.
There are fewer figures available for Europe, but these trends seem to be relatively consistent right across the West.
(The most interesting question in all of this, incidentally, is why. No one seems to know. Theories about aggressive marketing don’t stack up and there doesn’t seem to be any plausible hypothesis floating around about why black people like menthols.)
While we’re squeamish about providing, for example, specialised mental health services or remedial schooling for sections of the population who need greater levels of care, we seem to have no problem discriminating when it comes to so-called vices.
Indeed, in 2008, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus warned that special regard for mentholated over regular cigarettes would affect African-American communities disproportionately.
University of Georgia researchers Jerome Legge and Jessica Muilenburg noted after a study into smoking habits that “proposed legislation should consider the special problems of menthol and its relationship to high cigarette consumption, especially for African-American adolescents”.
But we’re not talking here about cigarette regulation that excludes menthol, putting black smokers at higher risk.
We’re talking about a specific ban on mentholated cigarettes – on that, let us remember, has no basis whatsoever in science.
The EU says menthols are more attractive to young people, yet study after study shows that regular menthol smokers start smoking later in life. Plus, menthol smokers have markedly lower lung cancer rates than smokers of normal cigarettes and they smoke fewer cigarettes per day.
As our science editor Greg Stevens writes today: “Studies have found no effect of mentholation on the levels of toxins in people’s system; they have found no effect on the age at which people start to smoke; they have found no effect on the ability to quit.”
As Greg notes, researchers have tried desperately for more than a decade to show that menthol cigarettes are worse for you than normal cigs, but they have failed to produce any medical evidence for the claim.
So what are we left with? Well, it’s tough to avoid the suspicion that the unfair targeting of menthols has nothing to do with health and everything to do with a load of fat, white, middle-class bureaucrats in Brussels horrified by those icky green fag packs knocking around the ghetto.
Desperate to ban something to appear tough on cancer sticks, they’ve picked the one variety of cigarettes that white people tend not to smoke, but that black people do.
You see, this is a ban designed to send a message about the virtue of legislators – it’s all about the children, right? – whose specific target has been chosen purely on aesthetics, rather than scholarship.
And the only really appreciable aesthetic difference between normal cigarettes and menthol ones, besides that delicious minty taste, is the person on the other end of the filter.
Milo Yiannopoulos smokes Marlboro Menthol
Now read: The menthol ban: no basis in science