Opinion

Richard Burr: Banning menthol cigarettes could lead to more marijuana?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to ban menthol cigarettes because they encourage children to light up.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to ban menthol cigarettes because they encourage children to light up. Observer file photo

Defending a product that kills 1,300 people a day might seem like a throwback Washington kind of thing, but we have to give U.S. Sen. Richard Burr some credit: He’s finding some new, if weird, ways to defend the cigarette industry.

Last week, the North Carolina Republican took to the Senate floor to speak up for menthol cigarettes, which face a new threat from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA chief Scott Gottlieb announced in November that his agency would attempt to ban the products, which are less harsh than regular cigarettes and encourage children to start lighting up.

Burr is having none of this talk about children’s lungs. He protested the FDA’s announcement in November, and last week he spoke to the Senate as part of what appears to be a larger pushback against the FDA from tobacco advocates. Burr’s speech plowed some of the usual ground: menthol cigarettes are a product that adults enjoy; tobacco brings millions in revenue and jobs to states; and, of course, more regulation of a legal product is bad. He also said there was no science backing up the worry about menthol, although the FDA concluded in a 2013 report that evidence shows menthol cigarettes lead to increased smoking initiation among youth and young adults.

Then there were the weird parts. Burr brought up a Twitter “like” that Gottlieb gave to a tweet last month describing Donald Trump’s declining poll numbers. Gottlieb has said that was an accident and that he quickly unliked the tweet, but Burr apparently saw an opening for a threat of sorts: “The commissioner liked the tweet,” he said. “Maybe I’ll say that one a few more times so the president will see it or hear it.”

Burr also introduced a new, logic-free defense of menthol cigarettes: Banning them is the first step toward legalizing marijuana. (A “gateway ban,” if you will?) “This is eerily similar to Canada a few years ago, when they banned menthol products,” Burr said. “How did they follow that up? This year, they legalized cannabis.”

There’s no connection, of course, between banning one product that’s harmful for young people and legalizing a separate product that young people would be barred from using. But cigarette advocates are becoming more desperate as the regulatory walls close in on their product, and Big Tobacco has been spending more money in recent years on political activity, including giving more than $200,000 to Burr’s 2016 reelection campaign. That’s almost three times as much as it gave any other candidate, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

We get that tobacco continues to be a significant part of the North Carolina economy. We get that the best-selling menthol brand, Newport, is made by Reynolds American, which has headquarters in Burr’s hometown of Winston-Salem. We also know, however, that cigarette smoking is responsible for 480,000 deaths a year in the United States. Banning menthol cigarettes would be a sensible, meaningful step toward lowering those numbers by blunting nicotine’s addictive power where it starts — in children.

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