Should Menthol Cigarettes Be Banned?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is debating a ban on menthol cigarettes as their slightly minty taste can cover up tobacco's harshness. That touched off a firestorm of debate within the African-American community. About 80 percent of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes compared with 22 percent of white smokers. The civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality says a ban would be unfair, but the NAACP disagrees. Host Michel Martin speaks with John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Deron Snyder who has written about this issue.

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: menthol cigarettes. By far they are the preferred cigarette among African-Americans.

Menthols, like the Newport brand, have a slightly minty taste that can cover up tobacco's harshness. About 80 percent of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes. That's compared to 22 percent of white smokers. Now, why might that be? Well, comedian Dave Chappelle asked the same question in a game show skit on Comedy Central.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHAPPELLE'S SHOW")

DAVE CHAPPELLE: Why do black people love menthols so much?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: I don't know.

CHAPPELLE: That is correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Unidentified Man #1: Because that's what Newports are?

CHAPPELLE: That is correct.

: I don't know. That's crazy.

CHAPPELLE: That is correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHAPPELLE: No one knows.

: Well, you heard right. Nobody knows. The proposed FDA ban on menthol has put at odds a number of organizations that are normally allies. The Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives are urging the FDA to reject the ban. While the NAACP and the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council are supporting the proposed ban. With us to talk more about this is the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, John Payton. Also with us is Deron Snyder. He's a regular contributor to TheRoot.com, and he's written about this. Thank you both so much for joining us.

JOHN PAYTON: Good to be here.

DERON SNYDER: Thank you for having me.

: Now, both of you have written commentaries on either side of the issue. So, before we begin, I do want to note that we invited Lorillard Tobacco Company to join our conversation. Lorillard manufactures Newport cigarettes. That is the most popular brand of menthols in the country, but they declined to participate at all.

: Why did you take the position? Why did the NAACP Legal Defense Fund take the position that it did?

PAYTON: The main issue, actually, is a little bit different. It is: How do you make sure that kids don't start smoking? A year ago, the FDA banned all other flavorings that were enticing to kids: chocolate, vanilla, that lured kids into starting to smoke when they were just kids. And the one flavor they did not touch was menthol. So the question is: Should the FDA - they have an advisory panel out there - look carefully at menthol, and should they include menthol in the flavorings that are banned? Because flavorings are what entice kids to start smoking in the first place.

And I think that if there were no menthol flavoring, it would have a dramatic impact in keeping kids from starting to smoke. And if you keep kids from starting to smoke, they won't start smoking later.

: But, Mr. Payton, why is this an issue for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is, as I think many people know, the premiere civil rights law firm in the country? The job of your organization is to fight discrimination. Why does this fall under your rubric?

PAYTON: Well, I think, you know, health issues certainly fall under our rubric. And 400,000 people a year die from tobacco. Eighty percent of African- American smokers and almost 90 percent of the kids who smoke smoke menthols. And it seems quite appropriate for us to sort of weigh in on whether or not it doesn't make sense for the FDA to have a ban on menthol as a flavor, because menthol is the entry point for young black smokers.

: Mr. Snyder, you agree that this is a civil rights issue after a fashion, but you take the opposite point of view. And I'll mention in the piece that you wrote for The Root, you mentioned that you were a smoker. You haven't been a smoker for 20 years, but when you were, menthols were your preferred brand, too. You just disagree with the ban. Tell us why.

SNYDER: Well, first of all, I take no pleasure in defending, in any way whatsoever, tobacco or tobacco companies on the product that they make. But I do feel that it's more of a principle, and it's interesting you talked about civil rights issues and the NAACP is a civil rights organization. And I think at its basis here, this is actually discrimination. As much as it pains me to say, we should have the right to kill ourselves just as much as anybody else.

And if 80 percent of smokers who are African-American use menthol products, to ban those products and to leave the non-menthol products on the market, to me, is just discriminatory. And Mr. Payton talked about menthol as a flavoring and being something that entices children to smoke. But the fact of the matter is that 81 percent of teen smokers prefer the same three brands that are favored by adults, which are Marlboro, Newport and Camel. Marlboro and Camel are not menthol cigarettes, yet they're still very popular among teen smokers.

: Well, here's how you put this in your piece. You said: The issue is a catch-22. You either support blacks' access to a dangerous-but-legal product and arguably sustain its usage. Or you support discrimination against the mostly black consumers of a dangerous-but-legal product. So, why do you support blacks' access to a dangerous-but-legal product?

SNYDER: Well, for one, as the law offices point out, banning menthol cigarettes will not really stop people from getting menthol cigarettes. The illegal cigarette market is a huge enterprise. Criminal organizations are flourishing with illegal cigarettes. As a matter of fact, one study suggests that illegal cigarettes is perhaps the number one black market commodity in the world.

You notice that they're not talking about banning all cigarettes. If we don't want people to smoke, why aren't we trying to do that? Because we realize at this point in time, it's really not going to be a feasible solution.

: Mr. Payton, what do you say to that? I mean, the point that Mr. Snyder just made.

PAYTON: Well, what we're trying to do is - here's what we know as a civil rights organization that has worked on civil rights issues: kids - 12, 13, 14, 15 - do not make the same mature judgments as 30-year-olds. And they make decisions that, in fact, harm them in the future. They don't appreciate the consequences of it. So we know something about what kids can't and can't appreciate. Menthol is a flavoring. There's just no question about that. And it is luring kids who are underage into starting to smoke in the first place.

: What about Mr. Snyder's other point, that this is paternalistic? That this is the kind of thing that the government is used to doing, is protecting black people from conduct that they don't protect other people from?

PAYTON: Well, just hold on on this point. With respect to kids, we do treat kids paternalistically. We say that no kid under 18 can actually lawfully smoke. No one's objecting to that. No cigarette company is objecting to that. I'm sure Mr. Snyder isn't objecting to that. What I'm saying is that there is a tremendous number of kids, underage, unlawfully starting to smoke. And one of the things that lures them into it, especially the African-American kids is the flavoring of menthol.

: No, I get that, Mr. Payton. The part that I'm not getting, though, is why is this a civil rights issue, per say?

PAYTON: Well, it's a civil rights issue because this is having a devastating effect on the African-American kids who we're talking about. And we have one flavoring that is remaining lawful, that's menthol, which is, you know, preferred and smoked by 87 percent of the African-American kids...

SNYDER: And adults.

PAYTON: ...all other flavorings - and the adults. But they smoke it as an adult because they started as a kid. If they don't start as kids, I'm just telling you, the data is really dramatic. If you don't start smoking before you're 18, you are unlikely to smoke after that.

: Mr. Payton, we gave you the first word, so I'm going to give Mr. Snyder the last word. Mr. Snyder - and putting your reporter hat on here - when is the FDA supposed to make this decision?

SNYDER: I believe they're still having reports. They're doing their findings and they're having people testify before their committee. There's a committee looking at it. Last month, there was some talk about it because they were moving forward. I don't know what the latest is on when they might have a recommendation.

But just to sum it up, I just don't really think that this is the way to stop kids from smoking. They're not - they're still smoking now. And if we ban menthol cigarettes, they'll still be smoking menthol cigarettes. It's not like people can go around checking people's cigarette to see if they're menthol or not. You're not going to have menthol police.

: Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to TheRoot.com. He joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. John Payton is president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He joined us from our bureau in New York. And if you want to read the commentaries of both of our guests or comment on this conversation, please go to our Web site. Go to npr.org. Look for the Programs menu and click on TELL ME MORE.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SNYDER: Thank you.

PAYTON: Thank you.

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