-- This article by Paul Smalera originally appeared in The Big Money. The views expressed are his own. --
Indulge me in a thought experiment. Pretend that drinking something called "lethalcoffee" has been found to cause cancer. There are five or six kinds of gross-flavored lethalcoffees that hardly anyone drinks, like chocolate, cherry, banana, and vanilla. But there's one flavor, mint, that 30 percent of all lethalcoffee drinkers are hooked on. And there's one particular group of lethalcoffee drinkers—let's call them investment bankers—who drink mint lethalcoffee like there's no tomorrow.
Allow 40 years for several million lethalcoffee-related deaths to pile up before the pandemic is taken seriously by the government. (Try to put aside any negative feelings you harbor about investment bankers.) Finally, Congress introduces a Lethalcoffee Safety Act that has a chance of becoming law. Would you imagine that law would:
A) Order the FDA to regulate lethalcoffee but withhold from the agency the power to ban it?
B) Ban every flavor of lethalcoffee except mint, the one most people drink?
C) Make it really hard for people to sell badcoffee, a new but much less hazardous cousin of lethalcoffee?
D) Be co-authored by Starbucks (SBUX)?
How about "E," all of the above? Because that's what Congress is proposing to do in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, probably soon to head to President Obama's desk for a signature. Mint-flavored lethalcoffees are menthol cigarettes. The 80 percent of investment bankers who prefer menthols are African-Americans. And the bill was largely shaped by Philip Morris (now called Altria), which sells more cigarettes than nearly every other American tobacco company combined.
"It is a dream come true for Philip Morris," Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, told me. "First, they make it look like they are a reformed company which really cares about reducing the toll of cigarettes and protecting the public's health; and second, they protect their domination of the market and make it impossible for potentially competitive products to enter the market." Other tobacco companies have taken to calling the bill the "Marlboro Monopoly Act of 2009."