Lit cigarette with smoking billowing around it

Democracy, like a sausage, is better enjoyed if you don’t see how it was made. Here is an example. Legislation that would regulate the marketing of flavored cigarettes is wending its way through Congress. The legislation, which would give the FDA the power to oversee tobacco products, would try to reduce smoking’s allure to young people by banning most flavored cigarettes, including clove and cinnamon. So far so good, but wait a minute: There is a curious exemption to the flavors to be banned—menthol is not to be touched! How come? Read on.

 

Why flavor cigarettes?

In their effort to addict young people to cigarette smoking, tobacco companies realized that flavoring would increase the chance that a beginner would stay with the habit, long enough to cause addiction. How ingenious; neurobiology in the service of tobacco marketing. Young people smoking mocha-flavored cigarettes are likely to recall the wonderful flavor of the chocolate milk they had consumed in childhood—and this recall, stored forever in their brain, would legitimize anything associated with it, including smoking.

There is another reason for the flavoring of tobacco: It masks its harsh flavor. Once you are hooked, flavor really doesn’t matter, but those critical initial encounters with smoking need to be as pleasant as possible. Research has shown that nicotine alters several brain structures practically from the first exposure; and by the fourth or fifth smoke, the brain is hooked. And so are you.

 

The special case of menthol cigarettes

Regulating flavored cigarettes makes a lot of sense, you might say. So why exempt menthol from regulation? After all, a growing body of evidence suggests that menthol makes it harder to kick the smoking habit—a view shared even by many scientists who say that menthol in cigarettes is not, itself, dangerous.

Of 45 million smokers in this country, the American Lung Association identifies about 33 million as non-Hispanic whites and 5 million as African-American. Recent data indicate about the same rate of smoking for both groups—in the 21 to 22 percentage range.

But, the use of menthol cigarettes is disproportionately an African-American phenomenon, which critics say has been reinforced by decades of advertising aimed at black consumers. Nearly 75% of black smokers use menthol brands, compared with only about 25% of white smokers. So, the bottom line is that Congress is about to protect white kids from getting hooked on smoking through flavored cigarettes. African American kids need not apply. One might think that this is just an unfortunate coincidence. But think again: Getting caught snorting an ounce of cocaine, a “white” habit, will land you in the county jail for a couple of weeks. One ounce of crack cocaine, a “black” preference, will get you a few years in jail.

 

Do you smell a rat?

As the New York Times reports, this legislation has been negotiated by Congress with Philip Morris for about 5 years. In the Senate, it is sponsored by the Ted Kennedy and 56 co-sponsors. Even the head of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, a nonprofit group that had been adamantly against menthol, acknowledged that the ingredient needed to be off the bargaining table, for now, because he didn’t want to imperil the bill’s chances. Politics as the art of the possible…

I am all for negotiation and compromise and bipartisanship and Kumbaya. But this deal smells of racism. Had the situation been reversed and 75% of white kids smoked mentholated cigarettes, the cool menthol exemption wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of even being considered, let alone passed. How humiliating to all of us, but especially to African Americans.

 

Another curious twist

Any amateur investigative reporter would smell something funny: How come the negotiation was conducted with one company, Philip Morris, and not with the rest of the industry? What’s PM’s motive? It’s actually not very complicated.

  • The legislation could help Philip Morris, with its best-selling Marlboro franchise, further entrench itself as the industry’s dominant player by placing new restrictions on cigarette marketing, making it difficult for rivals to use advertising to catch up. Philip Morris is working on new products that it hopes would be less harmful; the other companies cannot compete with PM’s R&D resources and advertising budget. Any restriction on advertising imposed on all the tobacco companies will put the smaller ones at a marketing disadvantage and will further entrench PM.
  • Philip Morris’ menthol brand is only second in market share, and is the fastest growing. By concentrating all its advertising firepower on its mentholated brand, it has a better chance to catch up and surpass Newport, the best-selling brand among African-Americans and the menthol market leader overall.

And I, for a moment, thought that Philip Morris was moved by conscience and concern for public health…

Q: Why did it take 5 years to negotiate this deal?

A: Because our legislators have been bought by the tobacco industry. Only after Philip Morris signaled its approval and agreed to lobby for the bill did many senators come out of the woodwork to join as co-sponsors. Of course, the other tobacco companies fiercely oppose the bill. But the weak sisters have less money to lavish on our representatives in Congress and hence, less clout.

This is a lesson they don’t teach in civics classes. Maybe they should.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.