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Is it time to say goodbye to flavor country? A new bill in Congress would give the Food & Drug Administration the powers to oversee tobacco products. It would also ban most flavored cigarettes, including clove cigarettes. But menthol cigarettes would stay on the market. Some health experts say that plan could leave black Americans at risk, and the Department of Health and Human Services say menthols make up a quarter of the American cigarette market. But 75 percent of African-American smokers use the product. For more, we have Bill Robinson, the executive director or the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, and John McWhorter, a Senior Fellow in Public Policy at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian think tank. Hi, folks.

Mr. BILL ROBINSON (Executive Director, National African American Tobacco Prevention Network): Hi.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Hello there.

CHIDEYA: So before we begin, we called the major tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris and Lorillard. None of them offered us a spokesperson to take part in this conversation. Bill, why don't you start off by telling us a little bit more about the legislation. Why do you think menthols were left off the list?

Mr. ROBINSON: To be honest, I don't know. The legislation is, well, will for the first time, give regulatory authority for a governmental agency for tobacco products. Cigarettes in particular but also it includes smokeless tobacco and various forms of nicotine delivery. Now it's very interesting over all of the years that the tobacco industry, or the Federal Drug Administration has regulatory authority over all of the ways to quit using tobacco, but never over cigarettes and tobacco products that people actually use.

CHIDEYA: John, you've done some work on what you call black cultural traits. And menthols are really popular in the black community. Why do you think they're so prevalent?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well you know, Farai, I think that really some things are just a matter of chance. And I don't mean that to be a boring answer, but I don't think that there's any gene that African-descended people have that makes them more like that particular menthol taste. It may just be a matter of a certain tendency that happens to have spread among a certain sub-group of people that might not really be due to anything in particular. There are certain foods some groups like more than others for reasons that you can't really say. But I think that nevertheless the fact is that there is an obvious popularity of menthol cigarettes among African-Americans, and that needs to be taken into account when we evaluate this latest legislative proposal.

CHIDEYA: Now, we're going to go to a break in a second. But before we do, just quickly, do you think that is bill is a good idea overall?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Me? Yes, I very much do. I think that it doesn't go far enough, but life is never perfect and things almost never happen as quickly as we would like. And to the extent that it would help America in general as well as black people to get rid of a lot of these flavored cigarettes, I think that that's a good thing. But to the extent that leaving out menthol highlights that something is going on that has egregiously disproportionate impact on the black community. I think what we see is a kind of opportunity for what some might call a civil rights initiative, but what I would call just sensible legislation to defend black people in this case, because obviously it's needed.

CHIDEYA: All right, well.

Mr. ROBINSON: And we agree - I agree 100 percent and in that this is a great starting point.

CHIDEYA: Well Bill, we're going to actually have to take a break. And I'm going to come back to you after that. So Bill and John, stick around.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. We are back and we're talking about a bill in Congress that would ban most flavored cigarettes. Joining me are John McWhorter, a Senior Fellow in Public Policy at the Manhattan Institute, and Bill Robinson, executive director of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network. So let me jump right back into this, Bill. You know, your organization is against smoking but you told the New York Times that you were in favor of the legislation even though it still allowed menthols. So what was the calculus in your mind about this?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, Farai, because we ultimately we want a bill passed that regulates tobacco products. Now, we weren't exactly sure when the bill was initially presented to us, as to why menthol was left out, but we lodged our complaint about the menthol and the missing additives right away. And in further discussions understood that if we pressed the issue at that particular time, it may have put the bill in jeopardy. And we didn't want to do that. because we think it's very important to make sure this legislation's passed.

CHIDEYA: John, when you say that you support this bill and yet you are in broad terms a Libertarian, generally you seem to come out against a lot of legislation that some people would consider more vice tax or legislation that really tells people how to live their lives. Why are you in favor of this?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, just for the record, Farai, I have never identified myself as a Libertarian. I am more of a centrist. I think I'm kind of hard to type. But in this case, what it comes down to is that this is legislation that will clearly have a disparate impact on black people. I don't call it racism, I call it the rapaciousness of capitalism. Clearly, menthol makes these people too much money for them to consider getting rid of it, they're going to have to be nudged, because there is a disparate impact. And it really is important.

And I want to stress that we don't need to think about why it would be that black people would like menthol cigarettes more. Nor should we question it. I'm afraid that some people are going to be afraid that there's some sort of stereotyping going on. And this has been shown in surveys I think anybody that's familiar with both the black and white community knows that there's this difference. You, know people in china, not Chinese-Americans, people in china don't like dogs as much as we do in America. Having pet dogs, breeding different kind of dogs, having a dog around the house, they don't do that as much as we do. Random cultural trait. God knows why it is. Fruits differ. In this way black people happen to like the menthol taste. And the fact is that if we don't do something about this then a lot more black people will be dying than white ones. And I think that we can call attention to the fact that here is where capitalism alone cannot be allowed to rule because we have some deaths at stake. And I think that's a very viable case. We are human beings, we are a polity.

CHIDEYA: I'm going to, please go ahead, Bill.

Mr. ROBINSON: I agree with you, John. And one of the things that we want to make sure, Farai, is that there was no compromise that went on in the negotiation of this legislation. When you ban menthol, or when you exempt menthol, it puts our community at serious disadvantage when - given the percentage of African-Americans that smoke mentholated products. We want to make sure also, through additional research, that we understand the connection between menthols and additives in tobacco products. And how much it impacts initial use, addiction, difficulty in quitting, morbidity and mortality related to tobacco use. But that shouldn't supersede the right to ban this originally going in. And as we're watching this and beginning to study this a little more, we want to make sure that it's not some compromise that the industry facilitated to make this happen.

CHIDEYA: Bill, I want to move on to a topic for both you and John which is money. John mentioned capitalism, and a study by the surgeon general in the late '90s said that major African-American magazines like "Ebony" and "Jet" got more money from cigarette ads than comparable magazines that didn't have a mostly black audience. There's also the issue of concert tours and festivals targeting black audiences, sponsored by cigarette and tobacco companies. Do you have a problem with that?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, in a sense we have a troubled history with the tobacco industry. But the tobacco industry was smart enough when we were - when the country during segregation said look, we'll offer jobs, we'll offer sponsorships, we'll offer scholarships, we'll support cultural events. And down the road, that buys violence and it squashes opposition sometimes. That's why we're in this fight, to help people understand that the exploitive nature of it and that we shouldn't. even if you have these magazines, that you can't put on a health page, across from a health page an advertisement for a health and then a tobacco advertisement, it's presenting a contradictory and conflicting message. So as we were trying to protect our communities, we want to make sure that our economic survival is not tied to the tobacco industry as it has been at some times.

CHIDEYA: John

Mr. MCWHORTER: It seems. Oh sorry, Farai, go ahead.

CHIDEYA: No please same question.

Mr. MCWHORTER: It seems to be that this is very important because obviously cigarettes have receded to a great extent over the past 40 years from, for example, white middle-class life. And there's clearly a calculus going on that we're going to see how many of them we can get. And not only bring up China again and foreign countries like China, but also we're going to sell them to black people because there isn't as much agitation from them. And frankly, life isn't fair and that's going to be going until we make some noise. So instead of having long discussions about how terrible it is that Michael Richards uses the N word in a comedy routine, we should be having more discussions about how we're going to get those cigarette ads out of our magazines just as was done in the wider world of America a long time ago.

CHIDEYA: Bill, quickly, how do you see the evolution of regulation of tobacco? Do you foresee, there are so many cities that are banning smoking in public places, do you see that happening more on a state level and what about on a federal level?

Mr. ROBINSON: I think so and this bill will help us get there. But one of the things that we're seeing is, as we become more effective in this country, tobacco industry is now moving overseas. So we see what was happening 40 years of the black community in this country, now begins to happen in Africa. But I do see that countries - excuse me, communities will - states and cities across the country will continue to ban tobacco products. The Master settlement agreement is an unfortunate we had this big settlement back in 1998 that paid all the states a lot of money but we have not seen - what we've been seeing is through loopholes the unraveling of these tobacco control efforts when many states didn't spend the money as it was indicated and intended from the beginning and we're losing in that sense. So the resources to fight tobacco are diminishing at a time when we're seeing an increase in smoke free ordinances in cities and states throughout the country.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bill and John, I want to thank you both so much.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you, Farai.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: John McWhorter is a senior fellow in public policy at the Manhattan institute and Bill Robinson is the executive director of the non-profit National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network.

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