By Tashi McQueen
AFRO Political Writer
As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars this fall, several Black leaders recently gathered on a virtual call to seek a halt on the policy and stress the negative impact the prohibition could have on Black Americans.
“I find this law objectionable. The laws we call ‘well intentioned,’ these little unintended consequences can be so averse to certain communities,” said Dr. Rahn Bailey, former president of the National Medical Association. “Rather, we should use education, training and advocacy.”
Black people tend to smoke later in life, but are more likely to die from smoke-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes than Hispanics and White people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 1980 to 2018, about 157,000 Black Americans have faced untimely deaths due complications from smoking menthol cigarettes.
In June 2022, the FDA proposed new product standards prohibiting menthol cigarettes and other flavors as a key ingredient in cigarettes and cigars that enhances the appeal of nicotine, an addictive chemical compound in tobacco plants.
In the FDA’s public announcement, they recognized that menthol immensely impacts Black Americans and that children are in danger of getting addicted to these products. Though the FDA is not banning nicotine, they are seeking to limit the amount of nicotine used in tobacco products.
“None of us promote smoking, but the last thing that we need is another failed attempt to deal with a health issue by what will eventually be law enforcement coming into the picture,” said Major Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore City and Maryland State police officer. “So let’s keep law enforcement out of it.”
Throughout the discussion, a major concern was that the ban could lead to more police presence in Black communities potentially causing more injustices.
“We do not need other criminalizing effects in our neighborhoods. I just think that we have to think of a better way. Let’s just try to get education and medication to the smokers,” said Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after officers performed an illegal chokehold on him during a confrontation over selling loose cigarettes.
Black leaders were also concerned that there would be no transitioning programs for menthol addiction, which they said could lead to illegal markets.
“Just like alcohol prohibition, violent, illicit neighborhood markets employ our children primarily. If you’re trying to protect children, now you’re going to drag them right back into the center of illicit markets, making cigarettes more available to them because there’ll be the one selling them on every corner,” said Franklin. “Let’s not create another underground illicit market.”
Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP, said he doesn’t agree with the opposition to the ban. In a statement emailed to the AFRO, Little addressed over-policing concerns in the Black community and how other solutions should be drawn to addressing the public health concerns.
“The threat of over-policing is not a sufficient reason to fail to address a pressing public health issue, nor is it sufficient reason to oppose the proposed ban on menthol tobacco products,” Little wrote. “A ban on the commercial manufacture, mass sale and distribution of menthol tobacco products does not inherently mean that individual possession and personal use of menthol tobacco products is criminal or subject to enforcement actions.”
“For too long, menthol and flavored tobacco products have been marketed to the Black community in a predatory manner without meaningful concern for the real world health consequences of their consumption,” Little continued. “Now is the time for public health policy that reduces the risks for cancer and respiratory illnesses that result from tobacco consumption.”
An FDA spokesman also shared their response to the objections.
“Let’s be clear here: the rules do not police individuals. The FDA does not regulate the possession of tobacco products by individuals for personal use and the proposed rules do not prohibit individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or make it a crime,” Jim McKinney, press officer for the FDA told the AFRO. “In other words, the proposed rules would affect commercial activity: manufacture, importation, distribution and sale of these products. Moreover, state and local law enforcement do not enforce the tobacco authorities in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and so could not enforce such rules on FDA’s behalf.”
McKinney explained that “the comments received will be taken into account by the FDA.”
“The FDA also recognizes the importance of ensuring broad and equitable access to all the tools and resources that can help smokers quit,” said McKinney. “The agency and federal partners across HHS are working to make sure the support is there for those who are trying to quit, especially in underserved communities.”