Banning menthol cigs harmful to black smokers, educate rather than arrest

To the Editor:

I sent this letter to every Albany County legislator.

Thank you for your ongoing efforts to protect the health and wellbeing of our communities.

I come to you today to emphasize grave concerns surrounding Albany County Local Law “E.”

We, like you, are seriously concerned about the use of flavored vapes among teenagers, and commend your wanting to address this problem. However, instituting a menthol cigarette ban will be counterproductive to the goal of reducing harms in the black community.

Knowing that a large number of black and brown people smoke menthol cigarettes (over 80 percent of those who choose to smoke prefer menthol cigarettes), the common good would be best served by educating people on the effect they have on health instead of creating more negative interactions between police and communities and saddling more people of color with arrest and conviction records.

African-American communities are already overrepresented in the nation’s incarcerated population and a menthol ban could make that worse. The ban will lead to increased traffic and street stops in communities of color and the increased likelihood the police will use force on a person of color.

According to Pew Research, although African Americans make up approximately 12 percent of the population, they represent 33 percent of the 1.46 million sentenced prisoners in 2016, and are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.

Even an arrest record can result in lifelong collateral consequences that could prevent people already living on the margins from getting an education, a job, or housing opportunities.

A ban on menthol cigarettes will contribute to increased criminal activity wherever the ban is instituted. Opportunistic criminals will smuggle illegal cigarettes into our community to capitalize on increased demand and price.

If instituted on a statewide basis, the danger would become even more acute. A 2017 New York Post article stated, “NYC is the cigarette smuggling capital of the US: study.”

When the illicit market grows, it becomes, counterintuitively, easier for children to access tobacco because those who sell illegally have no problem selling to people of any age.

In addition, a ban would mean that police time would be spent going after minor sellers rather than doing the real police work of investigating and preventing crime that makes us safer.

We simply don’t need another reason for police/civilian interactions that can have life-threatening or life-altering results. Our greatest fear is the increased possibility of more incidents similar to Eric Garner on corners in our communities.

Prohibitions and flavor bans, including menthol, will not only lead to overcriminalization, but will result in growing an already robust illicit market and increase the influx of dangerous, unregulated substitutes that negatively impact public health.

This is why I am against the ban of menthol cigarettes. Over the past several decades of investing in educational campaigns, treatment, and prevention programs, we’ve seen cigarette use plummet. The same thing can work here — and much more effectively — than an outright ban.

So I urge our lawmakers to have that conversation with the communities they represent and bring in local experts to educate our people about the health impacts.

We believe that addressing the scourge of flavored vaping products that has exploded among teenagers is a worthy effort, and we commend your commitment to protecting the health and safety of our young people. However, including menthol cigarettes within the same proposal discriminates against African Americans.

Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) 

Executive Director

Law Enforcement

Action Partnership

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, the Albany County Legislature was two votes shy of passing a ban on the sale of flavored smoking products.

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