By Dylan Housman
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday it plans to ban the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes, but the move aimed at improving health outcomes for black Americans is being called racist by some activists.
More than 18 million Americans smoke menthol cigarettes and banning them would reduce the number of tobacco-related deaths afflicting the country, the agency said in its proposal. That’s particularly true for black Americans who smoke, 85% of whom use menthol cigarettes compared to just 29% of white smokers, according to The New York Times.
The Biden administration has admitted it is targeting black smokers specifically with this ban. In the FDA’s proposal, it states this move will “reduce tobacco-related health disparities and advance health equity,” a euphemism for leveling the health outcomes between racial groups. Last year, acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock was more explicit: “[A menthol ban would] address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” she said in a statement.
Many Democratic politicians, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, praised the measure when it was announced. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki again confirmed the policy was targeting black Americans, saying at the podium Thursday it will “significantly reduce tobacco-related health disparities.”
PSAKI: Banning menthol cigarettes will “significantly reduce tobacco-related health disparities.” pic.twitter.com/iQY32u7wbp
— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) April 28, 2022
A number of health experts also endorsed the announcement, highlighting the benefit it will serve in black communities ravaged by smoking. But not everyone has seen it that way. (RELATED: The FDA’s Own Experts Have No Idea Why It Approved Another COVID Booster Dose)
Banning menthol cigarettes?!
They do not like black people at all
— Hotep WithIt (@HotepWithIt) April 28, 2022
Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill he doesn’t necessarily oppose a ban, but wants to see the unintended consequences studied first: “How could anybody ignore interactions between police [and the Black community] if they’re increased because of a ban?” he said. “If a policeman sees a guy standing on the corner smoking a Kool, he’s asking ‘Where did you get that from?’ and that will lead to interaction.”
He added that the progress of the marijuana legalization movement leads to a conflicting message as well: “That puts us in a very awkward position as ministers,” Sharpton said. “Grandma can’t smoke her Kools but Jamal can smoke his weed. That puts us in an awkward kind of position that looks paradoxical.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump expressed similar concerns. He said the ban won’t eliminate demand for the addictive product, and compared the potential consequences to tough-on-crime bills of the 1990’s: “Everybody said ‘oh this is a good thing and then you looked at it 20 years later and half the community was in prison.”
Back in 2021, when word of a potential ban first became public, the ACLU came out against the policy as well. “Well-intentioned efforts to continue to reduce death and disease from tobacco products must avoid solutions that will create yet another reason for armed police to engage citizens on the street based on pretext or conduct that does not pose a threat to public safety,” the organization wrote to the White House.
Some of the black Americans most directly affected by police brutality have asked the Biden administration to consider the impact of the policy on criminal justice issues. Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, and Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, signed onto a letter warning that the ban would “unleash a category 5 unintended consequences storm in our community, which many members of our community would find quite discriminatory.”
Garner was killed by New York police in 2014 after an interaction which began with the suspicion he was selling loose cigarettes without tax stamps.
Still, the Biden administration is assuring Americans that it has thought through the possible consequences. “This rule would go after manufacturers and people who sell, not individuals who smoke menthol cigarettes, and it would save lives,” Psaki said Thursday.