As news coverage of e-cigarette related illnesses has faded into the background, the U.S. House of Representatives took a major step last week by passing the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, which bans all sales of flavored vape as well as tobacco products, namely menthol cigarettes. However, the bill has African-Americans and civil rights groups concerned. The reason, according to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, is that between 85 and 90 percent of African-American tobacco and vape users prefer menthol – and enforcement of the law could lead to over-policing of black communities.
Research indicates that menthol makes tobacco significantly more addictive. At the same time, tobacco company advertising has targeted African Americans and other minorities for years. Furthermore, a 2011 report published in the journal Tobacco Induced Diseases found that smokers perceive menthol products as being “less harmful” – and most cigarette advertising in minority neighborhoods feature menthol brands.
Significantly, a recent partial ban by the current Administration did not include menthol products.
The current issue of banning menthol products has led to some division among African-American lawmakers. On the one hand, Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA), noting how tobacco companies have targeted African-American smokers, has been a staunch supporter of the ban. She also told Politico that fears of police crackdowns in minority neighborhoods are overblown. “I believe that the tobacco industry has created that myth, and they know that we are sensitive to anything that has to do with over-policing or incarceration,” she said.
On the other hand, other members of the Black Caucus fear that a menthol ban would make it easier for law enforcement to go after African-Americans, particularly youth. Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), describing menthol products as “low-hanging fruit” for police, said, “It’s an improper and unfair approach to begin solving the problem by targeting menthol cigarettes which happen to be disproportionately used by a racial group.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed similar concerns. In a letter to legislators, the ACLU included a statement by Gwendolyn Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died in police custody after New York City police arrested him for selling loose cigarettes. Carr said: “When you ban a product sold mostly in black communities, you must consider the reality of what will happen to that very same overrepresented community in the criminal justice system.”
Those who support the ban, including former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, blame cigarette companies. “They are the ones that have infected that community,” she says.