The tobacco industry has spent decades targeting – and killing – Black community members through predatory marketing tactics designed to hook us on deadly products like mint and menthol-cigarettes. What’s worse, in their efforts to protect profits, the industry pushed the lie that these products are a part of Black culture while exploiting our very real fear of police brutality.
The passage of California’s flavored tobacco law in 2022 is groundbreaking not only because it is a giant step forward to ending this exploitation, but because it was designed to avoid further criminalizing Black and Brown folks.
Tobacco is toxic, and so is the racism and inequality that’s central in the tobacco industry and criminal justice system, including who gets policed and why. Laws that criminalize the purchase, use, and possession of tobacco products are called PUP laws.
These laws have attempted to reduce youth smoking rates, but can result in fines, citations, arrests, and targeting of those who buy and use tobacco products. PUP laws inflict criminal penalties against people of color, especially Black youth. Black and Hispanic/Latino youth report higher PUP citation rates than their White peers even after accounting for smoking frequency.
Tobacco policies must be crafted and enforced in a way that prevents harm, loss of life, and acts of violence against Black and Brown communities. Tobacco laws should decrease community access to these deadly addictive products. Public health must provide culturally tailored services and programs, such as Kick It California, that decrease demand by supporting people who want to use these products.
PUP laws just don’t work. They can lead to racial targeting and violence and there’s little evidence they work. Laws focusing on tobacco retailers by restricting product sales hold businesses, rather than consumers, accountable. With proper funding and enforcement, retailer sales restrictions have proven to be better than PUP laws at reducing youth initiation and ongoing tobacco use.
California is committed to ending the tobacco epidemic in the state without causing further harm to our communities. To ensure tobacco laws are equitable and work as intended, a California state law decriminalized the purchase, use and possession of all tobacco products or paraphernalia in 2016. However, this law did not prohibit local jurisdictions from including PUP provisions in local tobacco laws.
Removing all local PUP provisions and enforcing California’s new flavored tobacco law are important steps to reducing Big Tobacco’s influence. Laws that focus on retailers and not the criminalization of individuals is not only better policy — it’s one way that Californians can address racial injustice.
Learn more about California’s path forward to undo the damage at undo.org.
Carol McGruder is the co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.