It would seem incomprehensible that the federal government would consider new laws that would disproportionally criminalize young African Americans. It would be even more incomprehensible that, as we are finally starting to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it would consider imposing new laws that would seriously damage public health and potentially cause millions of easily preventable deaths.
Yet the Biden FDA is considering exactly this, with proposals to force smokers to switch to more deadly types of tobacco, while, with no health rationale, criminalizing the smoking habits of primarily young African American males.
The first of these proposals, while seemingly innocuous, is deadly in its implications, and involves limiting the amount of nicotine in tobacco products. In understanding why, it is critical to note that nicotine, while addictive, is not in itself harmful, and its physical effects are similar to that of caffeine. Rather, it is the burning of tobacco that releases thousands of toxic chemicals and coats a smoker’s lungs with tar, that leads to the death of millions of people. It has been a common saying in public health for decades that “people smoke for the nicotine — but die from the tar.”
Research from the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes for Health shows that if the amount of nicotine is reduced, then smokers will inhale more deeply and smoke more cigarettes to obtain the same amount of nicotine. In fact, “the use of these cigarettes may be partly responsible for the increase in lung cancer for long term smokers who have switched to the low-tar/low-nicotine brands.”
Many countries have banned the marketing of “light” cigarettes for this precise reason — by reducing the relatively harmless part of a product, they increase the harmful one. This would be like mandating all vodka-Red Bulls must be at least 95% vodka to reduce caffeine consumption — the only result will be a lot more of the damaging part of the product will be consumed.
Equally troubling is a proposal to bring back prohibition just for the types of cigarettes primarily used by minority groups, despite no credible evidence they are more harmful than regular cigarettes, and that smoking rates in these communities are already lower than by white Americans.
In a plan condemned by all leading civil rights groups such as the ACLU, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and the Law Enforcement Action Partnerships “disproportionately affect[ing] people of color,” this proposal will mean minorities will “disproportionately bear the brunt of enforcement” and will continue “over-criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color.” During the Black Lives Matter era, when young black Americans have been killed by law enforcement for selling untaxed cigarettes, targeting these communities for increased law enforcement actions will significantly set back civil rights and is simply unconscionable.
If the FDA was serious about helping smokers quit, rather than consider proposals to push them to products that are even worse, or which will make millions of minorities into criminals and create a new black market, they should instead ignore Bloomberg’s campaign which also includes attempts to ban smokers from quitting with the most effective tool possible. Reduced risk tobacco alternatives such as e-cigarettes have been proven to be 95% safer than combustible cigarettes, more than twice as effective as traditional nicotine replacement therapies, are endorsed by 35 of the world’s leading medical bodies, and according to Georgetown University Medical Center, their increased use would save 6.6 million American lives.
It’s time the FDA actually did its job, stood up for the science, and helped smokers save their lives — rather than actively try to hinder them or further criminalize young African Americans. Millions of lives quite literally depend on it.
• Tim Andrews is Director of Consumer Issues at Americans for Tax Reform.