As debates around Westchester County’s proposed bill to end the sale of flavored tobacco products continue, it has been deeply troubling to see misinformation and alternative facts used to stoke fear and anger amongst the Black community about this vital public health legislation.
Opponents have argued that this bill will lead to further criminalization of our children and members of our community. They have cited the tragic killing of Eric Garner as an example of why the Board of Legislators should vote against the proposed flavored tobacco ban, knowing that folks like us have fought against injustices like these for years. These arguments are false and are the result of tobacco companies exploiting the real concerns about discriminatory targeting of communities of color by police to preserve their own ability to keep doing just that.
We know all too well the unabating fear of having an encounter with law enforcement go wrong. And as the sponsor of this bill and a leading advocate for its passage, we wouldn’t ever support an initiative that would have the potential to cause that.
The proposed bill poses absolutely no risk of criminalizing our children or inducing Stop-and-Frisk enforcement activity against our community. Its language makes clear that only the sale of flavored tobacco products will be outlawed—not their purchase, possession, or use. Police will not be permitted to stop or arrest anyone for smoking or possessing something like menthol cigarettes—not even business owners who break the law by selling them. All enforcement of this bill is left in the hands of the Westchester County Department of Health, who will simply issue the business a health violation.
In hundreds of cities across the country that have already passed laws similar to this one, police have never broken down the door of a Black person’s home or stopped them on the street to arrest them for smoking a menthol-flavored cigarette. With no threat being posed to any Westchester residents who use flavored tobacco products, this bill’s positive impact cannot be overstated.
If we don’t act now, tobacco companies will stop at nothing to continue targeting Black America—particularly Black youth—with menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products. Due to their predatory practices over the last six decades, tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death in the Black community.
As a result of this racially targeted marketing, 85% of Black smokers now 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. We are supporting this health measure because it will not criminalize the Black community, it will help save it.
We must not fall victim to the falsehoods of Big Tobacco because they will always choose profits over the health and safety of our community. If we pass this bill, we will take a critical step forward in protecting the Black community and the health of our children by getting these deadly products off our shelves.
Dr. Hazel Dukes is an American social justice activist who has worked to advance equality and human rights for 70 years. She is the current president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP and previously served as its national president.
Jewel Williams Johnson currently serves as chair of the Westchester County Board of Legislators’ Committee on Health and represents District 8. She is also the immediate past president of the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus, Inc.