By Elliot T. Boyce, Sr. (Ret.), Former Director of the New York State Police Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
With the FDA’s pending ban on menthol cigarettes growing ever closer, it’s important that policymakers contemplating passing legislation that will impact the interactions between Black and Hispanic Americans and law enforcement better understand the unintended consequences of this decision.
For Those Who Are Uninformed
This August, the FDA could announce a nationwide ban on all menthol cigarettes, ending the legal sale and purchase of menthol-flavored tobacco. Some advocates falsely claim that menthol products are more harmful, but research shows that menthol cigarettes are no more dangerous than any other cigarette. A JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute study found that “menthol cigarettes are no more, and perhaps less, harmful than nonmenthol cigarettes.” Toothpaste, gum, and other products can add menthol, but this does not make the products more harmful or addictive. Moreover, menthol cigarettes are not the preferred cigarette in America; non-menthol cigarettes are. So why would the FDA aim to ban only menthol-flavored tobacco products, especially considering the majority of Black and Latino smokers prefer menthol? The reasoning behind the ban is misguided, non-scientific, and rooted in the historical targeting of people of color.
For Those Who Claim That the Ban is Solely Motivated by Health
The best solution for a public health issue like tobacco smoking is education, treatment, and counseling. The government knows this approach well, as it’s led to tremendous declines in smoking since the 1960s. According to Statista, from 1965 to 2019, the prevalence of cigarette smoking in the U.S. has decreased from about 42 percent to 14 percent. Resources like quit-smoking websites, hotlines, medications, and text message programs contributed to this decrease, as well as common tobacco control policies like warning labels, advertising bans, and smoke-free environments.
For Those Who Don’t Understand That Prohibitions are Police Matters
The federal government has not yet released its blueprint for enforcement of this proposed ban; however, under federal guidelines, tobacco-related incidents fall under the jurisdiction of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), an agency that works both independently and in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies to combat tobacco-related offenses. For advocates and policymakers to tell the public that the health department will enforce the ban, they are ignoring one key fact: anything banned becomes illegal and, therefore, a police matter.
Ban advocates acknowledge that there will be an increase in the trafficking of unregulated cigarettes nationwide. This creates a roadmap for organized criminal enterprises to expand their operations within Black and brown communities where individuals will be seeking their tobacco product of choice due to the ban. History has shown that nothing is better for expanding organized crime than prohibition. In addition, this could force traditionally law-abiding citizens, particularly elderly individuals, who prefer menthol products to the streets to seek illegal, unregulated tobacco products, and in turn, increase their risk of being victims of street crime.
Police officers I have spoken with say this will become one more reason for officers to stop individuals in communities of color impacted by the ban, leading to more negative interactions and less community trust where it’s already sorely lacking. This means a proactive police approach to solving the trafficking concerns will target individual possessors of contraband and illegal cigarettes to get the larger organized criminals. This is a police tactic that will, unfortunately, target individuals whose only crime is their choice of cigarette.
As a Former Director of the New York State Police Employee Assistance Program (EAP), I travel the nation speaking to policymakers, citizens, and other distinguished law enforcement professionals to further clear up misconceptions about the unintended consequences of the menthol ban. Many smokers and non-smokers (like myself) are unaware of the ban, and many are perplexed by the rationale behind banning products that are not the most widely smoked but instead are preferred by Blacks and Hispanics.
In conclusion, please remember that information is power; we must understand the unintended consequences of the menthol ban. Health concerns are more effectively managed through education, treatment, and counseling, not by police.