Understanding the Demand-Side of an Illegal Market: Prohibition of Menthol Cigarettes

February 21, 2024

Originally published at National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)


The Food and Drug Administration has proposed to prohibit menthol cigarettes, which are smoked by almost 19 million people in the U.S. Illegal markets for menthol cigarettes could not only blunt the prohibition’s intended consequence to reduce smoking but could also lead to unintended consequences. We use data from a discrete choice experiment to estimate a mixed logit model which predicts that the prohibition of menthol cigarettes would substantially increase the fraction of menthol smokers who attempt to quit. However, our model also predicts a substantial potential consumer demand for illegal menthol cigarettes. Depending on the impact of illegality on product prices, our model predicts the potential demand-side of an illegal market for menthol cigarettes could be 59-92 percent the size of the status quo market if menthol e-cigarettes are legal, and 69-100 percent the size of the status quo market if menthol e-cigarettes are also illegal. Our mixed logit model estimated in willingness to pay space implies that the mean WTP to avoid an illegal retail market is equivalent to a tax of $8.44 per pack. In our partial cost-benefit analysis, the opportunity costs of prohibition exceed the value of the reduction in mortality risks from secondhand smoke by $15.4 billion annually.

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