This article written by: Alicia Butler

This article first published at: National Action Network

A document file regarding this issue is available by CLICKING HERE

November 7, 2022

Westchester County Council
148 Martine Avenue
White Plains, NY 10601

Members of the Westchester County Council,

As the Health and Wellness Policy Associate of the National Action Network (NAN), I am
writing to urge the Westchester County Council, most profoundly, to take into consideration the unintended consequences of a menthol ban before advancing proposed tobacco product standards to prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes. A menthol ban would severely target and harm African American smokers, who overwhelmingly prefer menthol cigarettes.

National Action Network is one of the leading civil rights organizations in the Nation, with
chapters nationwide. Founded in 1991 by Reverend Al Sharpton, NAN works within the
spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a modern civil rights agenda
that includes the fight for one standard of justice, decency, and equal opportunities for all
people regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, citizenship, criminal record, economic status,
gender, gender expression, or sexuality.

While NAN supports efforts to reduce tobacco-related disease and promote public health,
we are very concerned about the negative impact a menthol ban would have on African
Americans, at-risk youth (i.e., Black and Hispanic males), and other underserved
populations. In the U.S., it is estimated that there are nearly 18.6 million current smokers of
menthol cigarettes. Of the total number of menthol smokers, 85% are African Americans, so
any proposed action will put African American smokers at risk of racially discriminatory
government action while leaving all other cigarette smokers to enjoy the product of their
choice safely and at peace. Research shows that there has not been a decline in Black youth
preferring to smoke menthol cigarettes between 2011-2018. The days of Black Americans
going to the back door of the store to make purchases should be in our rearview mirror.

A menthol ban would impose serious risks, including increasing the illegal sale of smuggled, black market menthol cigarettes and the street sales of individual menthol cigarettes--“loosies” and place menthol smokers at significant risk of entering the criminal justice system. Any proposed rule to ban menthol would expand the illicit market for menthol cigarettes in African American communities. Specifically, several economically challenged consumers would not comply with the ban and instead increase engagement in less regulated (but dangerous) activities like tampering with cigarettes to create their menthol and switching to unregulated herbal menthol cigarettes. This would expose consumers to dangerous contraband cigarettes, increase youth access to cigarettes and promote criminal activity. Further, a menthol ban would exacerbate existing, simmering racial profiling, discrimination, and policing issues.

I recommend that the Westchester County Council consider the racial and criminal justice
impact a menthol ban would have on African Americans and other underserved
communities. Such a review has not happened to date. This commission or working group
should include federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials and other agencies that
enforce illicit tobacco sales.

In closing, no other country has a well-documented history of selective enforcement and
over-representation of African Americans in the criminal justice system. In 2019, when the
menthol ban was proposed in New York City, NAN leaders met with the police
commissioner, who stated, “If there’s a ban in place, his officers would have to enforce the
illegal sale of tobacco products.” The New York City Council did not pass a menthol ban to
avoid unintended consequences in black areas of the city. We urge the Westchester Council
to consider the unintended consequences of a menthol ban and instead strongly review the
heavy unintended consequences that would arise from the enforcement of a menthol ban in
black and brown communities, particularly the guaranteed increase in street sales of
loosies if the Westchester County Council decides to move forward with considering a ban
on Menthol cigarettes.

Alicia Butler
Health and Wellness Policy Associate
National Action Network

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