Op-Ed | The state’s failure on menthol ban means NYC needs to act

Menthol cigarettes and mint leaves on blue wooden table, closeup. Space for text
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One of the biggest disappointments of an unusual NY State legislative session was the failure of lawmakers to take up the Governor’s proposal to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products — including menthol cigarettes. Banning menthol and all other flavored products would save the lives of thousands of New Yorkers — mostly Black and brown residents who smoke— and our children would be much less likely to pick up the deadly addiction. 

But our fight is far from over – that’s why the New York City Council must take up Council Woman Rita Joseph’s bill (Intro 577) and end the sale of menthol-flavored tobacco products. 

Big Tobacco spent decades aggressively marketing flavored tobacco products, especially menthol, to our communities. So it’s no accident that most of the smokers who use menthol cigarettes are Black and brown – despite the opposition’s claim that such a ban would be discriminatory because menthols are the “preferred” tobacco products of our community. In fact, it was the intentional targeting of our communities by the tobacco industry that was racially motivated and discriminatory, and Intro 577 would finally put an end to that predatory marketing in New York City

And if we banned the sale of menthol-flavored products, 90,000 New Yorkers (the majority of whom would be Black and Latino adults) would quit smoking in just two years in New York City alone – and 3,000 young adults would never pick it up to begin with, according to the City Department of Health & Hygiene. Nearly half the City Council already supports this life saving reform.

Big Tobacco is scared of losing those lifelong customers, and it’s disappointing some lawmakers have chosen to side with Big Tobacco instead of addressing this public health crisis that kills thousands of Black and Latino people. After spending decades getting our communities addicted to these products, they’ve now stooped low enough to spread misinformation meant to provoke fear: They insist, despite the fact that the bill language makes the opposite crystal clear, that the NYPD will be involved in enforcing the law. Don’t be deceived: the NYPD will have zero role in enforcing a ban on the sale of menthol products. 

There has been a complete disregard for the need for fundamental police reform measures that we have been fighting for since the death of Eric Garner or to prevent police from using cigarettes as a predicate for stops and arrests. This legislation would go beyond just ending the sale of menthol cigarettes and actually take police out of the picture when it comes to enforcing tobacco laws, and greatly reduce the chances of negative interactions between individuals and the police when it comes to tobacco policies. As a civil rights leader, who has fought for Black lives my entire life, it’s insulting to suggest that I would push for something that would harm Black lives.  

Not only is this an issue of racial justice – to make it an even simpler task, this is an overwhelmingly popular bill: Three out of five Black and Latino New Yorkers supported the statewide ban on menthol-flavored tobacco products. Many New Yorkers want to see this deadly product taken off the market so their children and grandchildren do not become addicted to these cancer sticks.

I’ve lost many family members to lung disease because of a painful addiction to menthol cigarettes. They’ve suffered from cancer, strokes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – all diseases that are preventable. My family isn’t alone either – each year, more than 72,000 Black Americans are diagnosed with a tobacco-related cancer and more than 39,000 die from a tobacco-related cancer.

In the last few months, our coalition of civil rights and public health advocates stood with New Yorkers from around the state to ask lawmakers a simple question: do you stand with Big Tobacco and their profits, or with the Black and brown communities being targeted by their dangerous products every day? We urge the City Council to make the right decision and pass the menthol ban now before more Black and brown New Yorkers die at the hands of corporate greed and legislative inaction.