At first glance, banning menthol seems to be a step in a healthy direction for Americans, but some say that this ban holds implications that directly target the black community.
During the ‘s annual convention at the National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on Thursday, June 22, a panel consisting of publishers, activists and law enforcement representatives discussed these unintended consequences and urged audience members to join them in fighting against the proposed ban.
“It’s a racial issue, I believe,” said panelist Kim Stevenson, an activist from Oakland, California. “How are you going to ban menthol and flavored cigarettes and not ban all cigarettes? It’s a black tax on our people one more time.”
According to smokefree.gov, menthol cigarettes account for about 30 percent of total cigarette use in the United States.
Health experts claim that menthol causes a numbing sensation in the throat which allows users to become desensitized to the harshness of tobacco. Users gravitate toward menthol because it makes it easier to inhale cigarette smoke while harmful chemicals are absorbed by the body.
There is no research available that suggests that menthol cigarettes lead to a higher risk of cancer, or that they are in any way more harmful that other cigarette alternatives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 88.5 percent of African-American smokers 12 and older prefer menthol cigarettes, compared to 25 percent of white smokers.
Stevenson believes that because there is no research to support the specific ban of menthol, it is clear that the black community is being targeted.
“If they take it [menthol] off the market, there’s going to be an underground market,” Stevenson said. “That’s going to increase the criminalization of our community while increasing police contact with our people.”
As the conversation continued, panelists discussed the case of Eric Garner, a black man killed in an altercation with New York City Police as he was accosted for selling loose cigarettes. His story, along with those of other black men and women wrongfully targeted by police, were cited as examples of why banning menthol can lead to the criminalization of blacks.
The panelists’ concern was not of blacks’ access to menthol cigarettes, but rather that police officers will use such a ban to unfairly criminalize people in the black community.
“Law enforcement doesn’t need one more reason to be able to go into our neighborhoods and arrest one more of our kids,” said Chief John Dixon III, former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
The panel’s opposition to the ban may be misconstrued as promotion of tobacco use, but moderator Kendrick Meeks, a law enforcement representative, insisted that wasn’t the case.
“Folks should not smoke,” Meeks said. “It has bad health outcomes. … Everybody knows it. But banning menthol without banning all smoking isn’t a health advance.”
In order to combat the issue of smoking in all communities, the panelists said that education will have a broader effect than legislation.
Neill Franklin, retired Maryland State Police commander for the Bureau of Drug and Criminal Enforcement, said that tobacco use is a health issue that should not be handled by the justice system.
“We are trying to solve a public health issue with criminal justice tactics and practices,” he said. “In my 34 years in the police force, I have seen tobacco usage be reduced by 40 percent without the help of the police. It can be done.”
The issue has split the black community. Some proponents of the ban say that the ban is necessary to improve the health of black people, while others share the sentiment of the panelists that it is more of an attack on blacks than it is a plan to make them healthier.
San Francisco, Minneapolis and Oakland are among the cities mulling such a ban. With community members on both sides of the fence, panelists urged audience members to evaluate its unintended consequences for the black community.
“We have to think before we get behind legislation like this,” Stevenson said. “It sounds good, but it is bound to do more harm than good in our communities.”