Black Smokers at Center of New York Fight to Ban Menthol Cigarettes

“Well intentioned as the [proposed menthol-flavored cigarette] ban may be, it has angered some Black leaders, including a group of ministers who have rallied against Ms. Hochul’s proposal because they worry it could increase encounters between Black people and the police if menthol cigarettes were to go underground and authorities crack down on sellers.

Other Black opponents of the ban suggest it may be discriminatory, a heavy-handed crackdown on the preferred nicotine fix of Black smokers, even if African American men have the highest rates of lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some smokers said that if the state banned menthol cigarettes, they would just switch to unflavored ones. [..]

State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat who introduced a similar bill to Ms. Hochul’s, said the proposal was “on life support,” and in need of the governor’s strenuous support.

“It’s going to take a herculean effort on her part,” he said. “The big tobacco companies have been masterful at suggesting that to ban menthol is to discriminate against certain communities.” [..]

Only two states have enacted bans on menthol cigarettes. Massachusetts became the first in 2019, continuing the decline in overall cigarette sales and smoking in the state, despite menthol cigarettes being smuggled in from neighboring states. In California, where a ban took effect in December, tobacco companies have begun to try to bypass the ban by selling cigarettes that mimic menthol, the latest enforcement challenge for the authorities there.

New York health officials have cast a ban on menthol cigarettes as a mechanism to prevent smoking among young people and to help adults quit. It would affect Black smokers significantly: Nearly 85 percent of Black smokers consume menthol products, compared with 30 percent of white smokers, according to the F.D.A. [..]

For tobacco companies, there is a lot of money at stake: Menthol cigarettes account for about one-third of all cigarette sales nationwide, even as the smoking population has shrunk to record lows. [..]

“Prohibition and tax increases create law enforcement and criminal justice problems, harm vulnerable communities and will lead to losses in projected New York government revenues that fund important programs, like smoking cessation,” Altria said in a statement.

R.J. Reynolds said in a statement that a ban would have little impact on overall cigarette consumption and lead to illegal cigarette sales. “We strongly believe there are more effective ways to deliver tobacco harm reduction than banning products,” the company said. [..]

Most of the public opposition to the ban has come not from tobacco companies but from the state’s 8,000 convenience stores, which heavily rely on cigarette sales.

“When you’re talking about 30 percent of our sales, I’m going to die on that hill to try to prevent that,” said Kent Sopris, the president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group that has spent at least $11,000 on digital and social media ads featuring ominous warnings that a ban would lead to the criminal smuggling of cigarettes and declaring that “prohibition doesn’t work.” [..]

Some, like Rev. Carl L. Washington Jr., of New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Harlem, have argued that it would unfairly criminalize Black and Hispanic smokers, even though the proposed ban applies to sales, not personal possession. The pastor said he had been contacted by lobbyists on both sides of the issue, and had even talked to Ms. Hochul about the ban, but that he had not taken money from tobacco companies, who have been known to offer pastors financial contributions.

“For years, young Black men and women have gone to prison for selling marijuana,” he said. “Now we’re going to prohibit some cigarettes. We do not live in communist Germany or the Iron Curtain, Russia. This is America, where people have a choice.” [..]

Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Assembly’s Democratic majority leader, who is Black and opposes the ban, said it appeared to be exclusive: “If you want to impact people’s health, you should just ban all cigarettes,” she said.

But Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, a Black Democrat who sponsored the menthol-ban bill in the chamber, said that any economic argument against the proposal is outweighed by the thousands of tobacco-related deaths each year.

The ban holds particular relevance to Ms. Bichotte, the majority whip: Her father died of lung cancer.

“We’re talking about something that’s killing Black people, that was institutionally targeting a community,” she said.”

Full article, L Ferre-Sadurni, New York Times, 2023.4.23