October-29-2019

Our lawmakers are right: It’s time to ban menthol cigarettes | Editorial

Below is an article written by the Star-Ledger Editorial Board and published by the Star-Ledger on October 27, 2019.

 

The chilling vape scare, which has claimed one life in New Jersey, sent 20 people to the hospital, and placed 35 others under medical scrutiny, demands a robust government response. Accordingly, the governor’s task force has issued more than a dozen recommendations, the legislature is drafting bills, and the entire health community is on red alert.

Some lawmakers believe this is a good time to learn Chinese — notably, how that culture uses the same symbol for both crisis and opportunity.

The mysterious lung illnesses associated with vaping are alarming, and we applaud the pending effort to ban flavored e-cigarettes on both the state and national level. But this is also a chance to right another wrong, and go after another tobacco product that kills thousands of New Jerseyans a year.

Our state can do what the FDA has failed to do, and ban menthol cigarettes, which would be the most important tobacco reduction action ever taken. This particular poison is the worst of all gateway drugs: Half of all smokers under 18 choose menthols because it’s cooling sensation makes it easier to ignore the damage; ultimately, studies show menthols are harder to quit.

“Vaping is the immediate challenge,” concedes Senate Health Committee chairman Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who will fold a menthol ban into the anti-vaping package that will be debated next month, “but we must do more to reduce the threat of all tobacco products.”

It will not be an easy lift, if history is a guide. The last time Vitale tried to ban menthol, he received pushback from some in the African American community, because 88 percent of black smokers choose menthol (compared to 29 percent of white smokers), and because the pernicious tobacco companies won’t surrender one-third of its market without a fight.

Resistance is weakening, however. The national NAACP passed a resolution last year that encouraged state chapters to support any menthol ban, and New York City’s bid to ban menthol has local NAACP support.

In New Jersey, however, the NAACP will not endorse a menthol ban. They know that 47,000 African Americans die from tobacco-related deaths each year. They also know that Big Tobacco targeted minorities for generations, not only with advertising but by giving away free menthol products in communities of color.

But the NJ NAACP will not support the ban because “it will criminalize those who use menthol,” and “serve as a tool for law enforcement to over-police and over-incarcerate people of color.”

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a sponsor of the bill, calls the NAACP statement “misguided. It’s not like police need menthol cigarettes as an excuse for profiling people of color. A very weak argument.”

The sponsor of the Assembly version, Dr. Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), said the delay in banning menthol “boggles the mind. We’ve banned sales to 19- and 20-year-olds, I haven’t heard about them being targeted by police.”

Both lawmakers are African American.

Vitale explains that the bill targets the point of sale (stores, etc.), not the individual.

But pushback persists: R.J. Reynolds, which makes the best-selling menthol brand (Newport), even finances Al Sharpton rallies held in black churches under the rubric “Decriminalizing the Black Community.”

In other words, Big Tobacco wants African Americans to give greater weight to potential police harassment over cigarettes than to a product that kills 47,000 blacks a year. The NAACP might take note of that. We all should.

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