A ban on menthol flavored cigarettes beginning to sweep the nation will have unintended negative consequences, especially for African Americans according to a coalition that advocates for equity in the implementation of policies. Part of the coalition is the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives whose members say that the ban will open up additional avenues to police abuse toward Blacks. They are trying, they said, to stop the ban and urge legislators to focus more on health solutions to the problem rather than criminalization.
“Public health people… we get it,” declared Sheila Thorne, president and CEO of the Multicultural Healthcare Marketing Group and member of the coalition.
“We don’t disagree with you. We think smoking is bad and tobacco kills. But is [a ban] the solution?
“Will it stop people from smoking?”
The ban will affect local economies (mom and pop stores that sell the product), it may create an underground market, bringing more crime and it will give law enforcement another reason to target Blacks, coalition members said.
“What caught our eye is the fact that they were trying to criminalize menthol cigarettes,” said Chief John I. Dixon, III, past president of NOBLE.
“The problem with that is that 80 percent or more of the people who smoke menthol are people of color. So, here we have a targeted group [in regards to the law]. As we know across the country, the cops don’t need one more reason to assault blacks, especially for something as simple as cigarettes.
“What I find ironic is that this is a time we’re legalizing marijuana and now we’re criminalizing cigarettes. If you’re going to ban cigarettes ban all smoking but that’s not the case they are particularly focusing on menthol. Law enforcement should be focusing on violent crime, not some kids smoking cigarettes…”
“This newly unfunded mandate and overall bad policy would put law enforcement organizations on the front line of enforcing public-health issues, diverting resources from higher priority crime problems,” Dixon wrote in a recently published commentary.
“Officers would be ultimately responsible for enforcing the ban since menthol cigarettes will be sold illegally on the street. And this illegal activity could likely attract other crime… Tobacco use is a public-health issue not law enforcement. Cessation will come through public education, including programs for youth and teens. In fact, smoking rates continue to decline and are at historic lows. We must sustain this progress, but it will not come from law enforcement officers forced to fight an underground market that was foreseen and created by bad policy…”
In Oakland, community organizer Kim Stevenson approached the city council about the ban there.
“We already have enough problems in Oakland,” she told them.
The ban will bring outside criminals to the community, she said.
“You think you had a problem with [illegal drugs for instance] this is going to create a whole different situation.”
Former Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek has also joined the efforts against the ban.
“What’s happening now, especially here in California… you have the anti-smoking community, rightfully so, going out to prevent individuals from smoking,” he said.
“In 1994 [Florida] was one of the states to sue tobacco companies. During my time with the Congressional Black Caucus, we voted to give the Food and Drug Administration over tobacco products. When we were passing that legislation, there was a question of should we ban menthol.”
In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report that found menthol cigarettes led to increased smoking initiation among youth and young adults, greater addiction, and decreased success in quitting smoking. The agency concluded that, “these findings, combined with the evidence indicating that menthol’s cooling and anesthetic properties can reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke and the evidence indicating that menthol cigarettes are marketed as a smoother alternative to non-menthol cigarettes, make it likely that menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with non-menthol cigarettes.”
“It sounds good on the surface, saying ‘let’s rid the community of menthol cigarettes,’” said Meek.
“But it creates another opportunity for those individuals who wear the badge who don’t set out to carry out good community will. There are [law enforcement] units who are looking for an opportunity to encounter someone who they believe is looking like a ‘bad dude’.
Proponents of the ban, said Meek, have expressed the fact that they are not criminalizing menthol smoking, that their entire motive is prevention and saving lives.
While smoking rates among African Americans are lower than national levels, according to the FDA report, this ethnic group suffers disproportionately from smoking-caused chronic and preventable diseases. Each year, approximately 45,000 African Americans die from a smoking-caused illness. An estimated 1.6 million African Americans alive today, who are now under the age of 18, will become regular smokers; and about 500,000 of these will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease.
“Yes,” Dixon said.
“I don’t smoke, don’t want to smoke, don’t want kids to smoke. But I don’t want the police to have one more reason to put their hands on young Black men.”
Proponents are also saying that unintended consequences are hypothetical, said Meek.
“I can’t give a bonafide evidence of what will happen in a menthol ban and how it will overwhelmingly affect our community until we have the casualties,” he said.
“But why should we wait, when we know what’s about to happen?”