E-cigarettes (267492)
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Minister Kirsten John Foy, Northeast Regional Director, National Action Network (228901)
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In 2020, before COVID-19 swept in, the public health crisis New Yorkers were up in arms about was flavored tobacco, primarily e-cigarettes, and its impact on children. 

The use of flavored e-cigarettes by youth had been designated an epidemic by the US Surgeon General and was threatening to undo decades of progress in reducing tobacco use among the population. Lawmakers acted swiftly—and rightly—to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes to protect future generations of kids.

But which kids did they protect? And which kids did they fail? 

From 2014 to 2019, frequent youth use of e-cigarettes showed a 250 percent increase for non-Hispanic white e-cigarette users (14.8% to 36.3%), but the increase was relatively flat for non-Hispanic Blacks (11.8% to 13.5%). For Black and brown kids, the threat wasn’t e-cigarettes. It was the threat they’ve been facing for more than 50 years: the relentless targeting by the tobacco industry to sacrifice their lives in the name of profit. And when it came to those kids, the New York City Council and New York State both took a pass.

Three years later, not much has changed. Governor Kathy Hochul has courageously included a proposal in her Executive Budget to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, but the legislature is dragging their feet (as they’ve done for years). It’s well past time for lawmakers to pass the menthol ban on both city and state levels to protect Black lungs and Black futures. 

For decades, Big Tobacco has targeted Black and brown communities to get us hooked on their most addictive products: menthol-flavored cigarettes. Minty menthol cigarettes mask the harsh taste of regular cigarettes, making it easier to get hooked, especially for young people. They are still available on shelves and the number-one way Big Tobacco hooks young smokers and keeps Black New Yorkers addicted. 

Case in point: In New York State, menthol cigarettes are used by over half of all adult smokers—but among Black and Hispanic smokers, that rate is 86% and 72% respectively. That is not because we choose menthols. It is because the tobacco industry chose to target us as children with these insidious products. Half of all young people who have ever tried smoking start with menthol cigarettes. Among Black youth, it’s 90 percent.

Many of those opposed to this proposed ban—often backed by Big Tobacco money—have made the erroneous claims that such a ban will enable police to exploit this law to further criminalize and abuse Black and brown communities. 

The notion that we cannot have good public health policy because it will empower bad cops overlooks two facts. First, bad cops are doing what bad cops do right now. More importantly, Assembly Member Bichotte-Hermelyn’s legislation, which prohibits law enforcement from using consumption or non-commercial transfer of tobacco as a predicate for stops, questioning, or arrest, or for determining how the product was obtained, will actually minimize these risks. 

Daniel Panteleo lied and said Eric Garner was selling “loosies” and murdered him for it in 2014. Had this provision been in place, it is arguable that Panteleo would have either taken more careful stock of the moment, chosen a different lie, or exposed himself to greater criminal and administrative liabilities.

Finally, opponents will often say that banning menthols is discriminatory or racist because it’s the cigarette that Black and Brown smokers prefer. Again, that was not an accident—that was by design, and it’s killing us. What is discriminatory is the way this industry targeted us. What is racist is that when it comes to protecting kids from Big Tobacco’s flavored products, our lawmakers haven’t protected Black and Brown kids—yet.

The state has a moral obligation to intervene, disrupt, and put an end to predatory and abusive corporate excesses, like Big Tobacco’s menthol marketing; the state has a fiduciary responsibility to be a good steward of public funds, by eliminating a pernicious, wholly preventable threat to the health of our most vulnerable; and the state has a legal obligation to provide for and protect the public health and general welfare from products that have been scientifically proven to cause mortal harm. 

As a state, we are enabling and subsidizing Big Tobacco’s exploitation of Black and brown communities. The cost benefit analysis is clear in the immediate, intermediate, and long-term for social justice and equity, healthcare outcomes, and our economic future. 

Lawmakers must do more than just say “Black lives matter” in the context of police abuse. They must legislate it across the board and start protecting young Black teens from their most deadly enemy: Big Tobacco.

Reverend Kirsten Foy is the founder of Arc of Justice

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1 Comment

  1. E-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes article suggested black, brown, and Hispanic children are threatened by this epidemic.

    We must encourage urban black community and the Hispanic communities to get out and vote, flooding the halls of Congress to continue to create Bichotte-Hermelyn’s legislation, flood the halls of Congress to implement legislation to protect our children.

    Finally, we must encourage young people to support demographic campaigning across national spectrum.

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