Once raw tobacco leaf has been grown by a farmer and sold to a manufacturer, it must be processed into a desirable consumer product. To maximize profits, tobacco manufacturers want to make products that are as attractive and addictive as possible. The product standards governing this process of transformation aim to control tobacco products’ characteristics and which kinds of tobacco products can be sold to consumers.
When these standards are written with public health in mind, tobacco products can be mandated to be less attractive and less addictive to users. Such strategies include bans on characterizing flavors, limits on nicotine content, and prohibitions against additives that quicken nicotine’s absorption into the body. Additional policies include freezing the tobacco market by preventing the introduction of new brands, restricting a brand to a single presentation to prevent implicit suggestions of reduced harm in variants, and requiring the disclosure of ingredients to regulatory agencies and consumers.
Banning the addition of menthol, the most widely used flavor in tobacco products, has considerable potential to curb smoking. Research suggests that menthol in cigarettes may facilitate initiation and hinder quitting. Fortunately, laws banning the sale of menthol in tobacco products have passed in Brazil, Turkey, Ethiopia, the European Union, and five Canadian provinces.
While manufacturing standards that limit the appeal and addictiveness of products hold the promise of shrinking the tobacco market in the long run, there can be unintended consequences if such regulations do not carefully consider the broader tobacco product marketplace. For example, the market position of existing varieties of cigarettes became solidified when they were exempted from pre-market scrutiny under the United States’ law extending the Food and Drug Administration’s jurisdiction to cover tobacco products. Cigarette manufacturers were permitted to keep selling a deadly consumer product with only some restrictions, while barriers to the introduction of new potentially less harmful products were codified.
Meanwhile, the global tobacco industry has recently consolidated through privatization, acquisitions and mergers—now only 5 firms control 80% of the global cigarette market. These firms have automated and consolidated their own factories, steadily driving down the number of employees. Hence, now more than ever, when tobacco companies say that tobacco control policies threaten manufacturing jobs, we must remember that they are only in the business of maximizing their profits for shareholders, not protecting the well-being of their workers.