Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Illinois Senate Committee Votes to Ban Flavored Cigarettes (Which Few Kids Smoke) Except Menthol Cigarettes (Which Thousands of Kids Smoke)

Last week, an Illinois Senate Committee voted to approve a bill that would ban the sale of flavored cigarettes, except for menthol cigarettes.

According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article: "Rep. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said flavored cigarettes were most attractive to young people because they could be flavored like candy, fruit or soda, unlike regular cigarettes. Collins said the legislation gave the state an "opportunity to better protect children," saying that studies have proven that flavored cigarettes are more likely to be used by teens than by older adults. The ban would not extend to menthol cigarettes. A 2005 report from the American Lung Association, stated that 20.2 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds had tried flavored cigarettes, compared with 8.6 percent of 20- to 26-year-olds."

The Rest of the Story

The bill specifically eliminates the use of the following flavorings in cigarettes:
  • fruit
  • candy
  • chocolate
  • vanilla
  • honey
  • sugar
  • nut
  • mint
  • cocoa
  • dessert
  • soft drink
  • alcoholic beverage
  • herb
  • spice
However, the bill specifically allows the use of the following flavoring in cigarettes:
  • menthol
There are no data of which I am aware that any substantial proportion of youth smokers smoke flavored cigarettes.

In contrast, there are abundant data documenting that approximately 30% of youth smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. Among African-American youths, more than 70% smoke menthol cigarettes.

Thus, what the Illinois Senate committee has done is to make it look like they really care about the youth smoking problem by passing a law that garners news headlines, but not to actually do anything meaningful about the problem. The bill does little, if anything, to reduce youth smoking because it targets a wide range of flavors that are almost never used in cigarettes but ignores the chief flavoring that is actually used in cigarettes and which attracts a large proportion of youths, and the overwhelming majority of African-American youth smokers.

I'm not arguing that menthol cigarettes should be banned. I am arguing that legislators in Illinois are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk.

If they are truly concerned about reducing youth smoking, and they truly believed that regulating the content of cigarettes sold in the state was an appropriate intervention, they there is no excuse for these legislators not voting to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes in Illinois. Otherwise, they are little other than hypocritical politicians.

This is an all-too-common ploy that I have seen increasingly over the past few months: gain political points by making it look like you are really doing something to address the tobacco problem but don't actually deal with the problem in any substantial way. That way, you get the best of both worlds: political gain without having to actually exhibit courage or integrity.

Illinois Senate Bill 2825 is not about public health. It's all about politics.

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