Menthol cigarettes and our jobs

Editors Note:  The authors emphasize that  contraband cigarettes will fill the void resulting from a menthol ban.  CRE is about to release a precedental report on contraband.

Stakeholder is a word used to describe a person or group that can affect – or be affected by – another organization. Any way you look at it, workers in the tobacco industry are surely among the stakeholders in the U.S. tobacco industry. That’s why it was perplexing when the Food and Drug Administration excluded tobacco workers from a stakeholder meeting earlier this week in Raleigh.

The issue is vitally important because the FDA is now at work to implement the powerful new federal tobacco law. As part of that effort, the FDA created a scientific advisory committee to consider banning menthol cigarettes, which comprise one-third of the cigarettes sold today in the United States.

If menthol cigarettes were banned, make no mistake: Menthol cigarettes would still be made, and they would still be sold in the United States. It’s just that the cigarettes would be manufactured in other countries and sold here through an underground market.

That’s a lose-lose proposition. Menthol cigarettes would be made by workers overseas; our members would be out of work.

Yet when the FDA held a “stakeholder discussion” meeting in Raleigh to confer with representatives from manufacturers, growers and related industries, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union were not at the table. We demonstrated outside with a simple message: We should have been included, and the FDA should not ban menthol cigarettes.

Our concerns were met in part when a FDA official said the FDA wants to hear from the union “to engage in bi-directional, meaningful dialogue about tobacco product regulation.” When this meeting occurs, our union will stress that it makes no sense to lose more good American jobs for no purpose. Tobacco industry workers are concerned that a ban of menthol cigarettes is a proposal fraught with unintended consequences.

Over the past two decades, tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. tobacco industry have lost their jobs largely as the result of public policy decisions that gave little consideration, if any, to the effect on workers. FDA decisions can have a profound, far-reaching and long-term effect on the lives of workers, their families and their communities.

When it comes to menthol cigarettes, our assessment is based on reality. The reality today is that underground markets exist for tobacco products in many nations – and that the tobacco industry today is highly globalized. Many manufacturers have the capability to shift production out of the United States to facilities in countries around the world. Many have been doing exactly that for more than a decade, in part to take advantage of low-wage workforces in other countries.

In this market, the fastest-growing segment of the global tobacco industry is in illegal and counterfeit products. Should the FDA ban or severely restrict the production and sale of menthol cigarettes, consumers will simply turn to other sources for the menthol products they desire. Robust underground markets in countries such as Canada prove this point, as do the shipping containers filled with illicit cigarettes that are seized in ports.

Our union has strongly urged the FDA not to ban or prohibit menthol cigarettes. Our stance is based on protecting good American jobs – many based in North Carolina – and forcing the FDA to consider the underground market that will inevitably arise if menthol cigarettes are banned. Menthol cigarettes will still be made, but overseas.

At a time when the state is struggling with a sour economy, we do not want to lose any more North Carolina jobs. Workers in this industry are people trying to pay bills, put food on the table and send their kids to school. If menthol cigarettes are banned, the workers are going to suffer for no purpose. Banning menthol is a lose-lose proposition.

Randy W. Fulk of Elon is international representative of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, and Barry Jenkins of Greensboro is president of Local 317-T of the union.

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