Your illegal weed dealer might be adding menthol cigarettes and smuggled Backwoods and Swisher Sweets to their offerings next year.
On Thursday, April 29, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and all flavored cigars, starting in 2022. The FDA’s proposal responds to a lawsuit from the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council calling for the national ban, which would target makers and sellers, not users, of menthols and flavored cigars.
Tobacco companies will likely challenge the decision in court, according to Stat News.
But such a ban would affect many cannabis consumers—primarily Black smokers—who roll marijuana into flavored tobacco or cigar leaves, commonly called a blunt. Half of cigar sales in 2020 were two flavored brands: Black and Mild, followed by Swisher Sweets.
A 2020 study found that a third of weed consumers smoke blunts, while almost two-thirds of Black weed consumers smoke blunts. A separate study of blunt wrap brand Backwoods-tagged content on Instagram found that half of #backwoods posts were marijuana-related.
FDA confronts a health inequity
The FDA wants to reduce tobacco use, the leading cause of preventable death in the US. The agency stated that banning menthols and flavored cigars would reduce the number of kids who start smoking, and encourage menthol smokers to quit.
The FDA also said it specifically wants to reduce the number of Black Americans dying from tobacco. Three-quarters of Black smokers smoke menthols.
“Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement.
Banning menthols may cause 923,000 US smokers to quit, including 230,000 Black Americans in the first 13 to 17 months after a ban goes into effect. An earlier study claims the ban would prevent 633,000 deaths, including about 237,000 deaths averted for African Americans.
To do that, massive tobacco companies and distributors would face punishment for making, distributing, and selling menthols and flavored tobacco no earlier than next year.
Blunt ban draws critics on both sides
A menthol and flavored tobacco ban faces criticism not only from Republican and libertarian, small-government types, but also from the ACLU and other left-leaning groups worried about over-policing Black people.
“A menthol cigarette ban would disproportionately affect communities of color, resulting in criminalization and more incarceration. We can avoid this approach,” the ACLU tweeted.
Criminalization of menthol cigarettes “really scares me,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told reporter Marc Gunther. “It will give law enforcement another excuse to harass, surveil, and police people of color,” she said. “This will have tremendous racial disparities.”
Weed community divided
In online comments, cannabis consumers, as well as members of the Black community, were divided.
Rappers Wiz Khalifa and Rick Ross are noted anti-blunt marijuana smokers. Most studies conclude tobacco users face increased cancer risk (6.7-fold compared to never-smokers). Cannabis-only consumers, by contrast, show little increased cancer risk (1.2-fold).
Others community members resent the loss of personal freedom to choose a flavored wrap over a paper.
Blunt freedom isn’t worth the cost, said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, in a statement.
“For far too long, certain populations, including African Americans, have been targeted and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use. Despite the tremendous progress we’ve made in getting people to stop smoking over the past 55 years, that progress hasn’t been experienced by everyone equally.”
Do bans work?
Critics of the ban also note that a Canadian menthol ban didn’t work. Folks switched to unflavored or purchased from different suppliers. Additionally, illegal tobacco imports have swelled in Massachusetts in response to a flavor ban in that state.
The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms also states that frictionless, globalized trade in illicit tobacco is surging. (In 2019, Leafly reported on how a globalized, illicit supply chain composed of independent, small entrepreneurs can rapidly move counterfeit products—at scale—from a factory floor in Shenzhen China to a teenage vaper’s lungs in Utah.)
Conversely, a group of state attorney generals supports banning flavored tobacco, and said they do not think drug dealers would add illegal menthols and Swishers to their shelves. The European Union and Canada have also made moves against flavored tobacco.
But in reality, high tobacco taxes to curb use have created large illicit markets on the East Coast, experts note. New York’s illicit tobacco market led to the police killing of Eric Garner for selling “loosie” cigarettes. Garner’s mother opposed a proposed New York menthol ban, which failed to pass.
Are we repeating history?
Astute historians will note the same language used to criminalize cannabis in the 1930s (saving vulnerable minorities from making personal health decisions) is being used to criminalize flavored tobacco vendors today. For example, in 1911, US Drug War architects worried “Hasheesh, of which we know very little in this country, will doubtless be adopted by many of the unfortunates if they can get it.”
“If the Biden administration bans menthol cigarettes, it will be carrying on this long and unfortunate tradition,” wrote one drug policy critic this week.
Pot is now legal, and menthols are under attack, “because weed is white and wealthy now but menthols remain Black and poor,” tweeted Reason’s Nick Gillespie.
“Stop creating more reasons to call the police. That is what this will do, give Karens a reason to call the cops on bodega owners and street sellers for having menthols,” said Tiana Lowe, commentator for Washington Examiner.
The vast health improvements in Black lives are worth the police risks to progressive Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who lauded the FDA.
“Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that over time will help end the cycle of children becoming the next generation of smokers and eliminate long-perpetuated health disparities.”
Other unintended consequences
Blunt-smoking culture itself may be partly an unintended consequence of anti-tobacco efforts.
The brand Backwoods surged after a 1970 universal ban on cigarette advertising as tobacco makers switched to marketing small cigars (aka “cigarillos”), which were exempt from the marketing ban.
The 1970 universal marketing ban also encouraged tobacco sellers to micro-target specific groups, including minorities.
The FDA said their flavored cigarette ban in 2009 might also have drove blunt wrap adoption.
“After the 2009 statutory ban on flavors in cigarettes other than menthol, use of flavored cigars increased dramatically, suggesting that the public health goals of the flavored cigarette ban may have been undermined by continued availability of these flavored cigars,” the FDA stated.
In 2017, Imperial Brands PLC lauded its Backwoods success in its annual report, noting their annual profits grew 10.1% that year. “Our investment behind new customer activation and engagement programs … has delivered excellent results, including further share gains,” Imperial Brands stated.
Other critics imagine heretofore unknown unintended consequences. For example: ‘do-it-yourself’ mentholated solutions—like use of spray-on menthol sold at gas stations—could surge as well.