Later this month, the Westchester County Board of Legislators will consider a bill that would end the sale of flavored tobacco products. Despite the urgent public health needs for this critical reform, there have been some in our community that are concerned that a bill like this could lead to the further criminalization of Black children and families in our county. It’s time to set the record straight.
By ending the sale of flavored tobacco, the bill seeks to reverse at their root cause generations of racially unjust practices by tobacco companies—practices that have long had real and deadly consequences for Black Americans across the country. Big Tobacco is playing by the same playbook they’ve followed for decades, and we have to stop them here in Westchester once and for all.
Like so many other Black mothers and fathers, I know all too well the fear in our community of having an encounter with law enforcement go terribly wrong. Here in New York, we saw practices like stop-and-frisk be abused by law enforcement for years, and we have fought against injustices like the death of Eric Garner.
But it’s important to note that this proposed bill poses absolutely no risk of criminalizing our children or inducing stop-and-frisk enforcement activity against our community.
The bill language makes crystal clear that only the sale of flavored tobacco products will be outlawed —not their purchase, possession, or use. This will not allow police to stop or arrest anyone for smoking or possession of something like menthol cigarettes—not even business owners who break the law in selling them. The bill leaves all enforcement of this bill in the hands of the Westchester County Department of Health, who will simply issue the business a violation.
With no threat being posed to any Westchester residents who use flavored tobacco products, this bill’s positive impact cannot be overstated.
Since the 1950s, Big Tobacco has targeted Black Americans, especially Black youth, with menthol-flavored cigarettes. They’ve flooded our communities with persuasive marketing campaigns and retailer programs, and made menthol-flavored cigarettes widely available and cheap.
This is because Big Tobacco knows the truth: menthol cigarettes are easier to get addicted to and harder to quit. And they’ve chosen Black America—and, in particular, Black youth—as their main target.
Today, 85% of Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and smoking-related illnesses are the number one cause of death in the Black community, killing more people than AIDS, car crashes, alcohol, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.
I’m supporting this bill because it will do nothing to put our children in further danger, and everything to help save them from the deadly consequences of smoking. With an estimated 280,000 kids now alive in New York who will ultimately die prematurely from smoking unless we act, every day we wait to end the sale of these products risks losing more lives.
Frank Williams Jr. is a local parent in Westchester County.