The U.S. government issued an unusual apology to the people of Guatemala for grave sins committed, in the name of protecting human health, by American government scientists in the 1940’s. Nearly 700 Guatemalan men and women were deliberately infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Apparently, the studies were done in the name of public health, to determine whether the relatively new treatment of penicillin, could be used to prevent similar diseases. This shameful discovery drew direct comparisons to the infamous Tuskegee experiments performed on 600 Black Americans over a 40-year period, starting in the 1930’s. Again these horrific government experiments were done in the name of improving public health and “protecting” people.
The lesson to be learned from these two government initiatives to “protect” American public health, is that this faulty rationale must not be used to strip innocent human beings of their divinely given liberty to control and make choices for themselves.
Through a new tobacco law, Congress has ordered the FDA to study “the impact of the use of menthol in cigarettes on the public health.” The FDA’s study is significant for blacks for the simple reason that menthol cigarettes are disproportionately popular with blacks. Menthol is approximately 30 percent of the overall cigarette market; 75 percent of African American adult smokers and 23 percent of white adult smokers prefer menthol.
The substantial health disparities experienced by black Americans are a cause for great and continuing concern and is a problem that many black American advocates, including CORE, have endeavored to tackle. Several dynamics contribute to racial and ethnic health disparities, ranging from socioeconomic status and lifestyle behaviors to access to health care.
Because these health disparities exist, well intentioned public officials want to do something to address them.
Yet government efforts to demonize menthol flavored cigarettes will inevitably lead to adding yet another government imposed prohibition on a legal activity, hence another government restriction on people’s ability to exercise their liberty. Once again, this is government restricting people’s liberty for a believed public good.
I urge the FDA, in the strongest terms, not to jump to conclusions that menthol cigarettes – simply because they are popular among blacks – cause greater adverse health effects among blacks than non-menthol cigarettes. This connecting of the dots becomes increasingly faulty, when scientific studies point out that menthol as a taste flavoring is neutral in its health impact vis a vis non-menthol cigarettes. It would be a serious mistake to single out a flavor popular with blacks without solid scientific evidence regarding menthol.
I am not a smoker and believe it is an unfortunate choice and habit. Yet I abhor, far more , government repeating history by usurping individual liberty; even if it is, yet again, done so in the name of the of public health. History often shows us that the unintended consequences of actions by government, for ostensibly reasonable goals, can have dreadful impacts.
Congress of Racial Equality