Catholics should care about restricting cigarettes
2022 has been a massive year for public health. No, I’m not talking about Covid. In recent months, the Food and Drug Administration has launched a number of tobacco control measures aimed at bringing the United States closer to international cigarette regulatory standards. In April, for example, the regulator announced a proposed rule that would ban highly addictive menthol cigarettes. On June 21, the Biden administration followed up by proposing a maximum level of nicotine for tobacco products. Additionally, the FDA announced on June 23 that it would ban Juul, the number one e-cigarette brand in the United States, from selling its e-cigarettes in the US market. Altogether, these changes represent the biggest shift in US tobacco policy in years.
Tobacco control policies work and save lives. They also resonate with Catholic social teaching.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of these changes to our smoking cessation regimen, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the news. It is perhaps understandable that these changes have passed almost entirely under the radar, buried by headlines about our culture wars, the current war in Ukraine, an ongoing global pandemic, and dramatic upheavals in American politics.
It’s too bad, because tobacco control policies are among the most effective public health measures in American history. In 1965, almost 45% of Americans smoked. Today, that number is down to 13%, which has had a dramatic impact on lung cancer rates, which have been steadily declining since the 1990s. It is difficult to meaningfully quantify the significance of the hundreds thousands of lives saved; it’s too easy to lose the human impact of these developments under a pile of statistics. But each survivor and each life saved has their own story. Multiply the infinite beauty of every human life by hundreds of thousands, and you’ll begin to understand what these falling smoking rates really mean.
Studies have shown that if the US ban on menthol cigarettes had the same impact as Canada’s, approximately 1.3 million Americans would quit smoking. And given that the tobacco industry has a long and racist history of targeting black communities with ads for menthol cigarettes, a decline in menthol smoking would also be a monumental victory for racial justice in public health.
The simple truth is that the war on drugs has failed, and it’s an enduring reminder that public health interventions really need to be about public health.
All this to say that smoke-free policies work and save lives. They also resonate with Catholic social teaching, which at various times in history has strongly supported community public health policies aimed at saving lives, including in recent times vaccination against Covid-19 and other diseases. viral.
These policies also accord with a Catholic desire to defend the poor and marginalized. No one explains it better than tobacco executives themselves. A model for cigarette commercials (the “Winston Man”) said he once asked an executive at RJ Reynolds if he smoked, and the response was haunting: “Are you kidding? We reserve this right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid. This isn’t an anachronistic, flippant remark from just one person – today nearly three out of four smokers come from low-income communities, and it certainly has something to do with the industry’s various efforts all throughout its long history to target poor communities.
A society that properly values all human life must in turn uphold our collective commitment to protect and sustain life. How can we claim to have a culture of life when entire industries are making billions of dollars from a business model that depends on people’s addiction to a deadly carcinogen?
A society that properly values all human life must in turn uphold our collective commitment to protect and sustain life.
This is the question we should ask ourselves. But too often it gets lost in the weeds of moralizing drug policy debates. Drug control attempts are too often rooted in the stigmatization of marginalized communities instead of genuine attention to public health outcomes. It is not surprising that our efforts to punish drug users, rather than providing support or paying attention to structural inequalities, have failed to reduce drug use.
The simple truth is that the war on drugs has failed, and it’s an enduring reminder that public health interventions really need to be about public health. And smoke-free policies have shown us that these health interventions work.
Catholics have an opportunity to approach tobacco policy for what it is: a pro-life issue. Despite decades of attempts by cigarette companies to deny, distort and deflect, the evidence is clear: tobacco kills and tobacco control saves lives. We know this because our own government’s efforts to discourage smoking have worked. We also know that there is still much to do.
We could start by passing a law that strips cigarette packs of attractive logos, branding and designs, as Australia and several other countries have done. If we wanted to be more ambitious, Americans might look to New Zealand, where the government announced a plan to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2008, in a bid to create a smoke-free generation. At the very least, we should step up anti-tobacco campaigns amid alarming statistics on e-cigarette use among young people and invest in medical care and anti-tobacco programs in marginalized communities.
Tobacco regulation, to many, appears to be a largely anachronistic issue, a holdover from the public health debates of the 20th century. But the FDA’s surprisingly bold actions this year have shown us that there’s still room for progress on what remains arguably America’s greatest public health crisis. We could make that progress now, but only if we are willing to look beyond the tumult of culture wars and find common ground to address chronic health crises.