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Flavor For Thought
Where safety and smoking cultures clash.
The Broccoli Report
Friday, August 12, 2022
Time to read: 6 minutes, 53 seconds. Contains 1378 words.
Flavor For Thought: Where Safety and Smoking Cultures Clash.
One simmering news story has held my attention over the past several months: the proposed federal ban on menthol cigarettes. The ban touches so many things—the politics of vice, child safety, addiction, nostalgia, health equity, race—and possibly cannabis, too.
✤UPDATE: Because this is one of my favorite dispatches ever, I’ve unlocked it for all to read.✤
The minty-flavored cigarettes have come into the Food and Drug Administration’s crosshairs because eliminating them would positively impact the health of Black Americans. For decades, cigarette manufacturers targeted the Black community with menthol ads, and a significant percentage of the estimated 650,000 lives saved by removing menthol from the market represent Black lives. Almost 85% of Black smokers smoke menthols, compared with 30% of white smokers. And menthols attract young people—the Centers for Disease Control found that over half of smokers aged 12 to 17 smoke menthols, and the majority of smokers who started smoking as young adults first smoked menthols. According to some estimates, removing menthols from the market could prompt 1.3 million smokers to quit within a matter of months.
Given this, banning menthols seems like a no-brainer way to stop more people from developing a deathly addiction to tobacco while possibly curtailing use among adults. The Biden administration is likely to enact it; it supports the administration’s “Cancer Moonshot” mission to cut cancer death rates by at least 50% over the next 25 years. The ban would add the U.S. to the group of countries that have already banned menthol, including Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, Turkey, Moldova, the European Union, and the U.K.
What does this have to do with weed? Given the backlash against flavored Juul pods and the imminent ban on menthol cigarettes, it seems inevitable that flavored cannabis products will eventually come under scrutiny. So, where’s the line when it comes to an adult’s freedom to consume flavorful smokables and the risk of creating a sweetened gateway for kids? Is the cannabis industry headed toward a serious identity crisis?
Menthol’s Messy History
Interestingly, menthol cigarettes were originally marketed as a “medicinal” product. First developed in 1924 by Lloyd "Spud" Hughes, they hit the market in 1927. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company created the Kool brand in 1933, touting the “medicinal” properties of menthol. (Just like Vaporub or menthol cough drops, menthol soothes the throat. It literally makes smoking tobacco easier—not healthier, but smoother feeling.) They even ran ads that suggested, “in between the others, rest your throat with Kools.” R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company changed the game when they dropped menthol filter-tip cigarettes in 1956 under the Salem brand, offering a less intense mint experience, leading the way for a new generation of mentholated filter cigarettes: Lorillard with Newport; Philip Morris with Alpine; and Brown & Williamson with Belair.
Lorillard embarked on a campaign targeting Black youth starting in the 1960s, going so far as connecting with civil rights leaders as strategic voices speaking against anti-tobacco legislation. One organization that received Big Tobacco support over the years is Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. This relationship puts his opposition to the menthol ban under some scrutiny. Sharpton said he is hesitant to support the proposed rule because of the risk of higher criminalization of the Black community following a ban on the popular product.
I think it’s right to question Sharpton’s motives given the Big Tobacco money in his org’s pockets, but I also think it’s a fair question. The FDA seems to have thought this through, though. The current draft stipulates that the ban applies only to producers and manufacturers, not individual smokers, so cops would not be empowered to stop-and-frisk when they catch a minty whiff. And Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, has come out strongly in support of the menthol ban. He says a failure to ban menthols would “counter the goal and function of FDA to protect and promote public health for all, including the African American community.” It’s hard to ignore the positive impact the ban would have on the health of millions.
It’s even harder to ignore the fact that making a substance tasty is a surefire way to appeal to immature palates.
Flavors make things easier to enjoy—that’s one of the reasons Juul pods were so rabidly adopted (mint is often cited as the favorite). You can’t dispute the fact that flavors make a great gateway for a product like tobacco—or cannabis—that might not taste great the first few times you try it. And legislators see this. The current text of the recently proposed federal Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) includes a federal ban on vaping delivery system products that contain added natural or artificial flavors. The CAOA outlines a regulatory approach that groups cannabis and tobacco together in some ways, and it’s not too much of a stretch to envision a similar, hard-lined ban on flavors that extends to smokable cannabis or even further into other cannabis categories.
So while the current proposed legislation won’t affect peach-flavored hemp wraps just yet, it feels like a matter of time before legislators come from flavored products, especially if kids start favoring them. How long will flavored joints like Pure Beauty’s menthols or Edie Parker’s banana papers be ok? That’s the first takeaway from this whole minty affair: We can’t take established products in the current market for granted. Something that’s allowed right now might be banned in a matter of months or years. Look at Juul! They are in a costly fight for survival.
Creativity or Credibility: Pick One
By this point, you might be thinking, ok, wait. Alcohol! What about all those candy-flavored vodkas or liquor-filled chocolates? Yes, alcohol does whatever tf it wants. Mike’s Hard Lemonade is arguably made for high-schoolers. Hard sodas and seltzers are teenage dreams. We’re ok with this, culturally, because alcohol is a vice. No bones about it, no question—alcohol is for recreation. Why can’t cannabis companies tap into a little of that looseness?
Well, no one is arguing alcohol is a natural medicine everyone deserves access to. No one is touting the health and societal benefits of more people drinking more alcohol. Weed is wildly different from alcohol or tobacco. That’s why it freaks the broader culture out so much—it can be all of the things.
Weed is recreation, blunts and dabs, and 1960s joint circles about revolution and world peace. It’s also treating PTSD and epilepsy, alleviating pain, and comforting cancer patients. And it’s all of us struggling through decades of misinformation, Drug War propaganda, and question-squashing stigma. Even if you work in the industry, it’s hard to keep all of these truths in view, so how is the average person supposed to understand where peach-flavored joints fit into this thing people are giving to epileptic eight-year-olds? Cannabis breaks the medicinal/recreational dichotomy—flavored smokables are another fracture in that oversimplified dynamic.
The question of whether to fight for flavored smokables or not reveals an imminent existential question for all of us in the industry: Do we care more about getting to do fun stuff, like alcohol does, or is it more important to legitimize cannabis’ medicinal identity, even if it means dropping the peach joints? Ideally, sure, we could have it all. But we live in a polarized society that’s not always open to embracing complexity, particularly when those complexities create an on-ramp for kids to experience substances before they are ready. There’s only so long we’ll be able to thrive in this gray space between the alcohol, tobacco, and healthcare realms before we have to explain ourselves.
I couldn’t find a good update on the current state of the menthol ban— the public comment window closed at the end of July. If passed, it probably wouldn’t be implemented until 2024, and the interviewee on this WSJ podcast predicts a flurry of lawsuits from Big Tobacco if that happens. In a mass flavor ban scenario, it’s possible that targeting and strategically breeding cannabis plants to enhance terpenes that mimic popular flavors like mint and peach would offer new channels of innovation—but I suppose it’s just as possible that terpene-derived flavors would come under more regulatory scrutiny as well.
What do you think about cannabis’ connection to this issue? I’d love to hear any thoughts in the comments.
Wishing you a flavorful Friday,