By Jacob Sullum
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that if the FDA chooses to regulate cigars it could decide to follow New York City's asinine example by banning flavored varieties because they supposedly encourage kids to smoke. Last week five senators—Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)—urged the FDA to do just that:
As teenagers turn to cigars instead of cigarettes, these products pose a serious threat to public health and threaten to undermine the important public health protections of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
Flavored cigars are putting children’s health at risk and increasing nicotine addiction and tobacco use among young people. More than 13 million Americans smoke cigars, including an estimated 1.8 million high school students and 475,000 middle school students....Cigars with candy-like flavorings such as strawberry, watermelon, vanilla and chocolate attract kids to smoking and help hook them on this addictive habit.
Congress helped protect young people from the harmful effects of tobacco by banning flavored cigarettes. But as youth cigarette use has fallen, cigars have become more popular among adolescents.
The notion that adult products cannot be tolerated if they might appeal to children—which is also the premise underlying the statutory ban on flavored cigarettes and the agitation against sweet-tasting alcoholic beverages—is offensive to anyone who thinks the government should not treat adults like children. It is also an open-ended license to ban all potentially hazardous products, since adult things appeal to kids precisely because they are marks of adulthood. Even if we ignore these concerns, Durbin et al. offer zero evidence, aside from bald assertion, that flavored cigars are particularly popular among minors. Not that the lack of evidence will necessarily be an impediment: Congress banned flavored cigarettes even though they accounted for a tiny percentage of underage consumption. The one exception was menthol, which by some crazy coinicidence is the one flavor that remains legal, thanks to legislation that Durbin himself championed (as Michael Siegel points out), along with Philip Morris, which sells menthol varieties of several different brands.
Nor do the five senators back up their claim that "cigars have become more popular among adolescents" in recent years as cigarette smoking has declined. That is not what government-sponsored surveys show. According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (PDF), past-month consumption of "cigars, cigarillos, or little cigars" by high school students declined from 1997 until 2005, then remained steady through 2009 (the latest year for which data are available). The Monitoring the Future Study, which is conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that past-year consumption of "small cigars" by 12th-graders fell from 23.1 percent in 2010 to 19.5 percent in 2011. Both of these numbers are substantially lower than the rates found by several surveys (PDF) conducted in 1996. In short, Durbin and his colleagues seem to be making s**t up.