Racial justice activists in New York dueled Thursday over proposed city and state bans on menthol cigarette sales, in rallies just minutes and a block apart.
Family members of people killed by police gathered on the steps of City Hall in a morning protest against the bans – including the brother and sister-in-law of George Floyd and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who was killed by police on Staten Island enforcing cigarette regulations.
“My son was a victim because allegedly he was selling ‘loosie’ cigarettes,” Carr said. “That’s what they’re going to do when they ban these cigarettes.”
She added: “No more victims and no more violence – and no ban on the menthol cigarettes.”
Just 30 minutes later and a block away, some 40 clergy leaders and activists rallied outside police headquarters in favor of the ban, joined by Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference and former president of the National NAACP.
“Our children are dying. Our kids think menthol is great. They think it's bubblegum,” Dukes said.
She added: “Big Tobacco, you are getting out of our community.”
Our children are dying. Our kids think menthol is great. They think it's bubblegum.
The demonstrations come as both city and state lawmakers weigh proposals to take more tobacco products off the market.
Sales of most flavored tobacco products have already been banned. Pending measures would expand those prohibitions to include menthol-flavored products. A City Council bill has been sponsored by 20 members and a state proposal from Gov. Kathy Hochul is also in the mix.
The stakes are high, in tobacco profits and, public health officials say, lives as well.
'Prohibition doesn't work'
According to New York public health officials, the tobacco industry spends $9.1 billion annually to market and promote their products, including $177 million in New York. Menthol cigarettes are used by half of all adult smokers, while 86% of Black smokers and 72% of Hispanic smokers only smoke menthol cigarettes, according to state data.
All told, smoking kills 28,000 adults in New York, with Black and Hispanic smokers making up a disproportionate number of those deaths, according to state and federal data.
Local proponents of the bans point to several studies showing how menthol – a chemical naturally found in peppermint that creates a cooling sensation for a “smoother” feel while smoking – can enhance the addictive effects of nicotine in the brain and increase the likelihood of young people to try and continue smoking.
Even though fewer people are smoking cigarettes, menthol varieties have comprised a larger share of national cigarette sales: 37% in 2019 and 2020, the highest rate ever recorded up to that point. Historically, menthol cigarette manufacturers have aggressively marketed to Black customers, with ads in Black magazines, sponsored jazz festivals, and offered free samples to influencers in Black communities to build their customer base.
Meanwhile, critics say a ban on menthol cigarettes would unfairly discriminate against Black people and lead to more “negative interactions” with police. On Thursday, they asked why lawmakers decided against a broader ban on cigarettes, marijuana, or other vaping products.
They also say such a ban would be ineffective, citing a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine that found a similar menthol ban in Massachusetts led to an increase in smoking among Black women, although there were declines in smoking rates among Black men and adults more broadly.
“Prohibition doesn't work,” said Sylvia Miranda, executive director of the National Latino Officers Association. “The best way is through a medical model, not a criminal model.”
In response to criticisms that the bans would ramp up policing in Black communities, supporters of the bans say the proposals would specifically target retail sales, not personal consumption.
“Contrary to what the opposition is saying, read my lips: NYPD will not be involved,” said Council Member Rita Joseph, the main sponsor of the City Council bill banning menthol-flavored tobacco products.
A similar proposal in 2019 died after City Council members met in closed-door meetings with the major tobacco company Reynolds American, invoking Eric Garner’s death to argue that the ban would disproportionately impact Black residents, according to a New York Times report.