May 2, 2021 Reading Time: 3 minutes

I was recently driving east from Omaha for sixteen hours and there was nothing much to do so I let the radio linger on a “public news” show that consisted of two rational-sounding adults discussing how “the” science is now clear, the government must ban the production and sale of menthol cigarettes.

In 2019, I would have busted out laughing but now that America’s authoritarians have so clearly revealed their cloven hooves I figured I better pay close attention. I have never smoked and all my friends and relatives who did are now dead (none from smoking-related illnesses interestingly enough) so the matter interests me only as an example of the use and abuse of state power and the rhetoric of science.

According to the discussants, one of whom apparently is funded by the Kochs (who pay federal taxes), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to ban all “combusted” tobacco products but it is statutorily banned from eliminating an entire class of goods, so for now it is targeting just menthols and flavored cigars.

Before I could muse too deeply about that logical solecism, the Koch-funded guy said the ban was specifically designed to help African-Americans as four out of five of the smokers among that group prefer menthols. The host pushed back modestly, suggesting that menthols could become the new marijuana, i.e., the excuse to accost, arrest, and convict African-Americans for possessing or dealing something that should never have been illegal in the first place. Oh, the G-man said, law enforcement would never do that. The ban, he claimed, presumably with a straight face (but again it was radio so …), is all about stopping production.

Okay, let’s think this through. A ban will not appreciably diminish demand and in fact may increase it because, you know, people be people. And while there is no doubt that the FDA can crack down on mass manufacturing, it is almost powerless to stop smaller scale production. A ban will increase production costs and prices for African-American smokers and cause some to be hurt by botched illegal batches.

After all, tobacco would still be legal so nothing could be done about growing, processing, or shipping it. Tobacco turns menthol by adding synthetic chemicals, all legal for other purposes like mouthwash, or oil made from mint plants (Mentha arvensis), which can be farmed but also naturally grows throughout temperate Eurasia and North America. Even with concerted human effort to eradicate it, mint will go extinct the same time cockroaches and sharks do.

Because some mathematicians now claim that one plus one does not equal two, let me explain what those facts mean in the real world that policymakers, of all people, are supposed to inhabit. Anyone can easily make menthol cigarettes. In fact, entrepreneurs right now are probably planning on making menthol conversion kits that will allow smokers to soak legal tobacco in mint oil, dry it, and roll it by machine (here is an example of the last mentioned technology if you are unfamiliar), for self-consumption or under the table sale.

So to effectively ban menthol cigarettes, the FDA will have to ban tobacco entirely, something it has admitted is not in its power to do. Or it would have to destroy the environments in which mint grows naturally throughout the world and ban all possible chemical substitutes and their constituent parts. This is why liberty lovers always warn about the “slippery slope” of regulatory authoritarianism. Effectively banning just one simple thing usually requires widespread repression.

The racial component of the FDA’s argument is extremely troubling. Too much of anything, even water, can be harmful. (No joke, it is called water toxemia among other things.) Apparently, nothing could stop the FDA from banning monosodium glutamate (MSG), matzo balls, Buffalo wings, or anything else. All it needs to do is to find “scientists” willing to publish studies showing such things to be harmful — and again everything, even MSG, is harmful to some extent — while carefully parsing the category so as not to include all sodium salts, dumplings, or chicken wings.

But the FDA would never have an incentive to ban such things, you might think. Well, what motivation, other than paternalistic control over others, does it have for banning menthol smokes and cherry blunts? Whatever happened to our bodies, our choice? Where does the government think that its power ends? How many Americans agree with that line? What is to become of those who disagree, who still believe in freedom and individual responsibility? Banishment? Reservations? Soft execution by forcing them to smoke seized menthols?

There exists only one thing that needs to be banned that I can think of — big, intrusive government.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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