The greatest disruptor in the history of rolling papers is coming to the support of those who will be impacted by the FDA’s plans to ban menthol and other flavored cigar products like Backwoods.
The FDA is in the process of writing new tobacco standards within the next year to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors in cigars. The agency argued this authority, bestowed on it by Congress, is one of its most powerful tobacco regulatory tools.
“Banning menthol – the last allowable flavor – in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. when announcing the plan. “With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products.”
Woodcock went on to argue the combined action represents “powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact.”
The counterargument is that bans aren’t always that effective. As we sit here in the twilight of cannabis prohibition, 101 years after an alcohol prohibition began that would last 13 years, and nearly 50 years into our attempt to eradicate drugs from society, there are some reasonable questions of whether bans work. Many argue the anti-tobacco education campaigns of the last 20 years have had a far more devastating impact on the industry than any regulator’s pen could.
After you get past the negative health consequences of tobacco, it becomes a personal freedom discussion. When RAW Rolling Paper CEO Josh Kesselman got in touch to give us his take, we were familiar with the energy he brings to pretty much everything he does but weren’t quite sure if it would carry over to the discussion. It certainly did.
It would seem like Kesselman has a lot to gain if things were to go the FDA’s way. There is a reasonable argument to be made that the cannabis that wouldn’t make it into blunts would find its way to a product he owns or consults on. But Kesselman quickly emphasized it’s much more than that fueling his drive to see this ban fail. Kesselman would even argue this may all be the seeds of homogenized cannabis.
“You’re looking at it because of your personal vantage point. You look at it from the cannabis side. I don’t look at it from the cannabis side. I look at it from the smoking side. My roots are all tobacco thanks to my dad. We were always rolling our own tobacco cigarettes,” Kesselman said. To avoid the legal headaches, he didn’t want to say he introduces folks to something cleaner, but he’s definitely trying to get people into a mindset of an older, more natural way of smoking.
“I’ve even sold tobacco seed over the years and tried to get people to just grow it themselves. That way, you know exactly what is in it. There’s no question, just grow it yourself, that way you know, and it’s the same thing with my papers,”,” Kesselman said. “The same thing with everything. It’s a matter of trying to provide people with a more natural way of experiencing the magical nature of smoking plants because there isn’t just one plant, there isn’t just two, there isn’t just three … there’s a lot of plants out there, and each one of them has a different effect, and a different benefit.”
As the conversation moved towards the forthcoming FDA actions, he was quick to show his disgust at the idea of people thinking it’s something he might be in favor of. He doesn’t want the money of someone that’s been forced to use his product. He wants them to enjoy cannabis or tobacco however it works best for them.
“It’s actually something that I’m heavily opposed to. People think I would be for it. I am completely against it. I surveyed my customer base on Instagram, and we have over 10,000 responses and 86% are completely against the ban,” Kesselman said. “It really comes down to freedom and bullshit. And the bullshit is, we never want to see a plant get criminalized. Because when you criminalize something, you’re creating criminals, you’re criminalizing a behavior.”
Kesselman argues his community feels that adults choosing to partake in using menthol cigarettes or flavored backwoods know the risk of what they’re getting into. Kesselman himself has spent years lecturing people on the dangers of all the nasty chemical-treated things in both the cannabis and tobacco spaces. He stands by the education model as being the way forward.
Kesselman traced this new wave of regulation back to an uptick in tobacco regulation during the Obama administration in 2009.
“Around 2009, I sued the FDA over them trying to claim that my flavored rolling papers, my juicy Jay’s papers, were illegal. They were not illegal, and we had to go to court, and it was a nightmare. I got to understand their mentality, and their mentality is not science-based,” Kesselman said.
In the process of building a defense for his products, they looked a little more into the background of the legislation that led to the court challenge. He believes the legislation was one giant effort by Monster Tobacco to regulate medium and small tobacco out of existence, and stop more natural alternatives from getting wind in their sales.
“The senators that were for the bill defended it, saying, ‘Of course it was written by Monster Tobacco. Who else knows how to regulate this industry better blah blah, you know, than the industry itself,’” Kesselman said.
The ethos of the claim here is that Monster Tobacco is helping push the public health argument to help consolidate what’s left of the industry in America while making it difficult to enter the space. Also concerning is the idea they’re pregaming to make a similar run at weaponizing bureaucracy to take control of as much of the cannabis industry as possible.
Kesselman argues this would be accomplished through language in the MORE Act that will put cannabis under the control of the FDA, the PACT Act and other stuff written by Monster Tobacco. The scariest rumor Kesselman pointed to was a bill where cannabis would become an exact control product leading to some kind of process for homogenized FDA-approved cannabis.
“If you got a patent on that process, which you will, then you now have complete control over cannabis,” Kesselman said. “Little by little, people are smoking less and Monster Tobacco is fighting to hold on to them. They’re trying to keep people. They’re trying to keep vaping out. They try to get everything out to keep you buying those packs of cigarettes. Now they can phase, slowly but surely, from tobacco into cannabis and get trillion-dollar profits for another couple 100 years, and also, of course, outlaw everything that stands in their way.”
One of the aspects of the ban currently being debated is the potential for communities of color to face increased enforcement due to the more widespread use of menthol tobacco products and blunts. The FDA argues they’re targeting distributors, but would people from those communities be the lowest rung on the distribution ladder because the product has been regulated off the shelves?
Kesselman gave his take on the prospects of enforcement: “We are humans, man. We are very industrious. If you make it illegal, and people still want it, whatever it is, they will find a way to make it. And they will sell it, and then you’re going to bust them for it. And the number of laws that are against these, like if you’re selling black-market menthol cigarettes for example, the number of laws that are written to criminalize that are already over the top, you have all the taxes and all the FDA.”
But most importantly, how well will it work? Researchers in Canada found 59.1% of pre-ban menthol smokers switched to non-menthol cigarettes; 21.5% quit smoking and 19.5% still smoked menthols, primarily purchased from First Nations reserves.
“People are not going to quit. It will be a small portion that will. The overall majority will go to Monster Tobacco’s regular cigarette, which is what Monster tobacco wants more than anything right now,” Kesselman said. “And the ones who don’t will go to the black market and who knows what they’re going to be smoking. It’ll be a criminalized behavior, and we end up with more criminals over something that’s just a friggin plant.”
We asked Kesselman if the people whose lives would be hardest hit by this would be the collateral damage from greed? He definitely felt that was the case.