Biden’s menthol cigarette prohibition is so obviously stupid and wrong it boggles the mind

Joe Biden sunglasses getty
President Joe Biden speaks on the North Lawn of the White House on April 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Biden claimed to regret how his drug warrior legacy led to mass incarceration.
  • But the prohibition will lead to harsher policing in Black communities.
  • It’s like the president hasn’t learned a thing from the failed and evil War on Drugs.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Joe Biden clearly hasn’t learned a thing from the failed and immoral War on Drugs – a disaster that he played a huge part in creating.

The president on Thursday ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban menthol cigarettes, a plan first reported on Wednesday by the Washington Post. Since it’s a regulatory change, Congress has no say in the matter.

Anti-smoking advocates have lobbied for the ban for years, arguing correctly that the tobacco industry has targeted menthol sales at young people and Black communities.

Let’s be clear: Big Tobacco is a callous, lying cabal that exists to profit off addicting people to a deadly product. But cigarettes aren’t going to be made illegal overnight, just a certain flavor of cigarettes.

The ban will make menthol a prized commodity, a sought-after product whose artificial scarcity will inevitably drive up its price on non-legal markets.

A flavor will now be a crime, making criminals out of people who want some mint flavoring with their toxic tar.

This idea isn’t just dumb and wholly unnecessary – it’s plainly destructive to the communities it’s supposed to be helping.

Biden’s sorry (but not sorry) about being a prohibitionist

Throughout the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden was badgered by his rivals into apologizing for authoring several of the Drug War’s most punitive and socially destructive laws.

Those laws contributed to mass incarceration, the militarization of police, black markets controlled by violent criminals, as well as millions of broken homes and shattered lives.

Biden thought his heart was in the right place: Drugs are bad, m’kay.

But the Biden-backed Drug War was just a hyper-violent and hyper-expensive reboot of alcohol Prohibition – a colossal failure, so corrupting of society at almost every level, that Congress amended the Constitution to get rid of it.

As a candidate, Biden sheepishly claimed to have evolved from the days when he was boasting of legislation that he said did “everything but hang people for jaywalking.” As the Democratic nominee, Biden promised to work on decriminalizing marijuana and removing it from the DEA’s list of Schedule I controlled substances.

Biden’s now been in the White House for more than three months, and Vice President Kamala Harris says the administration is simply too busy to fulfill its promise..

But apparently Biden isn’t too busy to use his power to ban menthol cigarettes.

This demonstrates either Biden’s promise was hollow, or that he’s too stuck in his drug warrior ways to see how it’s a certainty that criminalizing a popular product in the Black community is going to be an abject disaster of human carnage.

Eric Garner protest
People participate in a protest to mark the five year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner during a confrontation with a police officer in the borough of Staten Island on July 17, 2019 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The madness of prohibition

Albert Einstein almost certainly didn’t say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But it’s still a good line.

Biden enacting a prohibition that instantly creates a black market and room for more unnecessary and potentially dangerous encounters with police, should be seen as the plainly dumb move that it is.

The “unintended consequences” cannot be called “unforeseen.” We can see them plain as day.

We’ve done prohibition before, several times. To expect a different result – the eradication of the banned product without unneeded violence and imprisonment – meets Einstein’s apocryphal definition of insanity.

And there’s almost no doubt the weight of this ban will fall predominantly on the Black community. One need only look at the police killing of Eric Garner, who in 2014 was the target of an NYPD crackdown on loose cigarette sales. That crackdown was deemed necessary because illicit loosie sales don’t collect New York’s high tobacco taxes – which were enacted, in part, to curb smoking.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is under no illusions about what the menthol ban means.

In a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and members of Congress, the ACLU noted that about 80% of Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and warned the ban “will trigger criminal penalties, which will disproportionately impact people of color,” lead to “constitutional policing,” and “prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction.”

While acknowledging that it would be best if no one smoked, the ACLU also seemed to question the necessity of the menthol ban, citing government data showing “cigarette use is down to 2.3% from 13% in 2002” and that among underage African-Americans it’s down to 1.1%.

There is simply no ethical or scientific reason for Biden to impose a move as severe as a total ban on menthol cigarettes.

Prohibition isn’t just ineffective, it’s wrong. And its architects and adherents almost always regret it eventually.

Biden once prided himself on being more of a Drug War and Law and Order hardass than Ronald Reagan. If his mea culpas from the 2020 primary were sincere, he’d be keeping his promises to wind down the war on marijuana, not starting the war on menthols.

When menthol cigarette crackdowns inevitably come to Black communities, Biden shouldn’t be allowed to claim he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the unintended consequences.

The president should know better about prohibition, but he doesn’t.