The Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon that the Biden administration is considering ordering cigarette makers to lower nicotine to non‐addictive levels in tobacco cigarettes. It is also considering banning menthol cigarettes, which are popular among young people and are particularly popular with African American smokers. What could possibly go wrong?
First, there is reason to fear that cigarette smokers will increase the number of cigarettes they consume to compensate for the decrease in the desired effects of nicotine. Cutting the nicotine yield might have the unintended consequence of smokers taking more puffs, inhaling more deeply, and holding the smoke in longer. While nicotine is addictive, the tars in tobacco smoke are what do all of the damage to health. Reducing nicotine content might paradoxically make smoking more dangerous.
As public health professor Michael Siegel once pointed out:
By focusing on increases in nicotine yields as if they are necessarily harmful to public health, anti‐smoking groups are implying that decreases in nicotine yields would be a good thing. But the truth is that reduced nicotine yields could be harmful to public health because they would likely increase cigarette consumption (due to compensation), leading to increased tar delivery and higher rates of lung and other cancers as well as chronic lung disease.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of prohibition, and its associated violence. It seems the policymakers never learn from mistakes.
When Bhutan completely banned tobacco sales it spurred a surge in tobacco smuggling. By 2017 Bhutan led Southeast Asia in per capita tobacco smokers. Exorbitant cigarette taxes in New York City aimed at reducing smoking make the city the “cigarette smuggling capital of America.” Black market sales of individual cigarettes, or “loosies,” are now a flourishing profit center.
It doesn’t take a vivid imagination for anyone who has the slightest familiarity with this country’s disastrous experience with alcohol prohibition, or the catastrophic effect of the war on drugs, to conjure where mandated nicotine cuts and bans on menthol cigarettes will lead.