The fact is two things can be right at one time. It’s right to want the youth smoking to continue to decline, and enforcing the current age 21+ law is one way to do this. However, it is also right to oppose discriminatory laws like the Governor’s menthol cigarette prohibition.
A Discriminatory Ban
Harlem has been my home since 1996, and before that, Chicago. So my roots and passions lie between two cities and the shared experiences of the predominantly African-American communities that I have called home.
I do not promote smoking, nor am I a smoker. But I have a question for advocates of the ban, doesn't the Surgeon General warn of all cigarettes, regardless of an added flavor or menthol? So it is discriminatory to target only the menthol cigarettes that adult African American smokers prefer.
While proponents argue that a menthol cigarette ban could encourage some smokers to quit, have they considered that two things can be right at the same time? That the ban could also result in menthol smokers seeking legal non-menthol tobacco or buying unregulated menthol tobacco from the black market and street salesmen.
How will the criminals profiting from illegal tobacco sales respond to the prohibition? Do the advocates of the ban think they will turn to legitimate employment, or will they sell more due to increased demand for a now illegal product?
In reality, illegal street sales of menthol cigarettes occur daily in some New York communities. A prohibition will increase this and be concentrated in communities of color, leading to greater police presence, racial profiling, fines, and arrests.
Before a prohibition is passed, we must know how it will be enforced. Do the enforcement bodies have the resources to implement? How will police prevent another fatal encounter with a young Black man allegedly selling loosies? We cannot have another Eric Garner.
Black and Brown New Yorkers cannot be targeted by law enforcement. New York must address the stop-and-frisk culture and practices that still exist today.
The Messages Our Legislators Send
Rightfully, New York legislators banned flavored vape in 2020 to help eliminate youth tobacco use. However, the void left by this prohibition was quickly reinforced by the rampant availability of now-legal weed dispensaries on every block. As a result, New York youth use cannabis at far higher numbers than tobacco, especially menthol cigarettes, which Black and Latino adults prefer.
This year, our Senators & Assembly proposed legislation that should be applauded: investing millions in tobacco control programs; and increasing resources that would help enforce the 2020 flavored vape ban that lowered youth vaping numbers. Our governor can put these measures in place and send the right message.
Listen To Our Communities
The pandemic changed the world and America, and it changed our state. My community is my haven, and I've always felt safe here, but post-pandemic crime changed that. Crime in our communities is on the rise. The homeless population is increasing and living on our streets. Our families are concerned about the cost of living and the availability of affordable housing. Mental illness is ripping our families and communities apart! Whether it's gun violence, drug addiction, or police brutality, our communities are tired of living in fear and having to 'watch our backs.'
These are the issues that our policymakers were elected to address.
Difficult decisions have to be made with wisdom. When Solomon taught about wisdom, he taught that we should not strive to be better than anyone else. Instead, he asked for discernment and humility to understand the needs of the people. When we do not ask difficult questions, we risk pride, greed, and disobedience distracting our judgment.
Our state and city policies must be guided by collective wisdom, which can only be established by asking difficult questions and having the right groups at the table.
Our legislators must answer the people's questions before passing a prohibition.
Bishop Chantel R. Wright is the founder of Reach Covenant Ministries International and Songs of Solomon Choir.