Denver, CO

Proposed menthol ban discriminates against black people, resident tells Denver City Council

David Heitz

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A resident during public comment period Monday told the Denver City Council its proposed ban on flavored tobacco unfairly targets blacks.

The committee considering the bill plans to exempt hookah establishments and premium cigars from the ban. But menthol cigarettes will be banned.

Alvertis Simmons pointed out that Denver officials have said they will exempt hookah establishments because smoking hookah is a cultural tradition. “So are menthol cigarettes,” said Simmons, who is black. “What next? Are you going to tell us we can’t eat collard greens? That’s cultural."

Data backs up Simmons' claim that menthol cigarettes are popular among black people. “Young people and African Americans are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes than other groups,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “The majority of African Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes.”

Young people who smoke prefer menthol

The CDC reports 70 percent of black youth ages 12 to 17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes. Among all youths, 54 percent of those 12 to 17 who smoke, smoke menthols.

“These groups likely have higher percentages of menthol cigarette smoking in part because the tobacco industry has aggressively marketed menthol products to young people and African Americans, especially in urban communities,” according to the CDC. “From their research, tobacco manufacturers knew that young people preferred smaller amounts of menthol in their menthol cigarettes, while older people who smoke preferred more menthol.

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“The tobacco companies purposely lowered the menthol in some of their brands to make young people who smoke and those just starting to smoke want to use them.”

Denver’s ban on flavored tobacco is intended to protect children from the hazards of smoking. Vape pens, all of which are flavored, have made it easy for children to sneak puffs.

Others say ban is positive for public health among black people

Other groups see the ban on menthol cigarettes as a huge step forward for improving public health among black people. According to a study by the University of Michigan, banning menthol cigarettes nationwide would save more than 16,000 lives a year by 2060. That a total of 650,000 lives saved, according to a University of Michigan news release.

The university conducted the study because the FDA has vowed to outlaw menthols nationwide. “Today, we celebrate with all Americans that the Food and Drug Administration took a powerful step towards banning menthol and saving lives, especially black lives,” Action on Smoking and Health said in a statement in April. “While a menthol ban does not go into immediate effect, our hope for a better, brighter, and healthier tomorrow starts today.”

According to the group dedicated to ending the tobacco epidemic, the administration of President Joe Biden “acted quickly and definitively to prioritize black lives and to make progress towards ending the institutionalized racism African Americans face as a result of menthol cigarettes. The FDA emphasized in their statement that it “…intends to make this proposed rule one of the agency’s highest priorities; a priority we emphatically agree with.”

FDA plans to ban menthol sales nationwide

In a statement in April, acting FDA commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock announced new measures the FDA plans to take. “Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products. With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and 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.

“Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact. Armed with strong scientific evidence, and with full support from the administration, we believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the U.S.”

Some groups agree with discrimination claims

Still, there are those who agree with Simmons that Denver’s ban targets black people who enjoy menthols while exempting the flavored premium cigars smoked by white men.

The Reason Foundation explains on its website why governments should not ban menthol cigarettes.The latest CDC data shows that for the year 2019, smoking among white adults was statistically indistinguishable from that of black adults — with 15.5 and 14.9 percent respectively smoking,” Reason explains on its website. “Given the lack of substantial disparities in smoking rates, advocates for menthol bans have not been able to explain why the preferred product for black adult smokers will be subject to prohibition while the preferred products of most white smokers will remain legal and available.”

In a letter opposing the ban, the American Civil Liberties Union and 27 civil rights groups explain how it could harm minority groups. “Policies that amount to prohibition for adults will have serious racial justice implications,” the letter explains. “Such a ban will trigger criminal penalties, which will disproportionately impact people of color, as well as prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction. A ban will also lead to unconstitutional policing and other negative interactions with local law enforcement.”

Once the committee sends the flavored tobacco bill to the full council, the council must vote on the measure twice for it to become law.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

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