Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I got some tea and it involves New York state government, A Menthol cigarettes ban and lobbyist.
Govenor Kathy Hochul is pushing to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes in New York and it has become the focal point of a fierce and expensive lobbying fight, pitting Big Tobacco against the medical community.
According to the New York Times; Altria and R.J. Reynolds, which produce top-selling menthol brands and are the two largest cigarette makers in the United States, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an army of top lobbyists who have argued to members of Hochul’s staff and dozens of lawmakers that such a ban would be ineffective public policy. The companies have also funneled at least $135,000 since 2020 to a convenience-store trade group that is fighting the ban.
Their opponents,which are a coalition of public health groups and a national antismoking organization, have spent over $1 million on ads in newspapers, on television and even in Times Square, disparaging tobacco companies and trying to pressure lawmakers to back Hochul’s proposal.
Of course if you let it be told, Black smokers, who are caught in the middle of this situation, smoke menthol cigarettes at higher rates than white smokers, and are the main group the ban is meant to help. Decades of aggressive marketing by tobacco companies have caused Black smokers to consume menthol cigarettes, whose cooling sensation on the throat makes them more appealing and addictive.
Well intentioned as the ban is, it has angered some “Black leaders”, including a group of ministers who have rallied against Hochul’s proposal because they worry it could increase encounters between Black people and the police if menthol cigarettes were to go underground and authorities crack down on sellers. Other Black opponents of the ban suggest it may be discriminatory, a crackdown on the preferred nicotine fix of Black smokers, even if African American men have the highest rates of lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some smokers said that if the state banned menthol cigarettes, they would just switch to unflavored ones. “I don’t see any logic in that,” said Mike Hayes, 53, as he smoked a Newport on Euclid Avenue in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood on a recent morning. “Take away menthol cigarettes and it’d be complete hell.”
Another one who is for the bill is Alexander Harper, 38, talked on the phone with his girlfriend as he puffed on a menthol cigarette. He said he had been trying to quit to no avail and would support a ban. “As a smoker, you tend to make excuses to continue smoking,” said Harper, a Postal Service clerk. “Stress at work, stress with your girl, dealing with your bill. I need a cigarette.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat who introduced a similar bill to Hochul’s, said the proposal was “on life support,” and in need of the governor’s strenuous support. “It’s going to take a herculean effort on her part,” he said. “The big tobacco companies have been masterful at suggesting that to ban menthol is to discriminate against certain communities.”
The debate over the proposed ban has thrust New York to the front lines of a national crackdown on smoking and the influence of Big Tobacco.
New York health officials have cast a ban on menthol cigarettes as a mechanism to prevent smoking among young people and to help adults quit. It would affect Black smokers significantly: Nearly 85 percent of Black smokers consume menthol products, compared with 30 percent of white smokers, according to the F.D.A.
The coalition supporting the ban includes the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a leading antismoking group that has received millions of dollars from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The organization has paid nearly $1.15 million in January and February to one lobbying firm, Pythia Public, for a multimedia, pro ban ad blitz. Many of the ads feature heartfelt testimonials from New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to lung cancer, including Hazel Dukes, the president of the state N.A.A.C.P., and a staunch ally of Hochul’s.
For tobacco companies, there is a lot of money at stake: Menthol cigarettes account for about one-third of all cigarette sales nationwide, even as the smoking population has shrunk to record lows.
Both Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, which produces brands like Marlboro and Parliament, and R.J. Reynolds, whose portfolio includes Camel and Newport, have activated their sophisticated lobbying operations for the New York fight. Collectively, the companies have hired more than a dozen lobbying firms, including top Albany shops like Bolton-St. Johns, spending a total of more than $400,000 in January and February, disclosure filings show. The cigarette makers also have year-round contracts with lobbyists totaling over $1.4 million. Tobacco lobbyists cite the lackluster enforcement of New York’s existing ban on flavored e-cigarettes, which are still available in many smoke shops, and menthol bans elsewhere. They say a ban would simply lead smokers to switch to non-menthol cigarettes.
Tobacco lobbyists cite the lackluster enforcement of New York’s existing ban on flavored e-cigarettes, which are still available in many smoke shops, and menthol bans elsewhere. They say a ban would simply lead smokers to switch to non menthol cigarettes. Altria has exerted its clout in other ways: It has given $174,350 to Democratic and Republican candidates and campaign committees in New York since last year, according to campaign filings. “Prohibition and tax increases create law enforcement and criminal justice problems, harm vulnerable communities and will lead to losses in projected New York government revenues that fund important programs, like smoking cessation,” Altria said in a statement.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 by a police officer enforcing cigarette regulations, has spoken out against the proposal. Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Assembly’s Democratic majority leader, who is Black and opposes the ban, said it appeared to be exclusive: “If you want to impact people’s health, you should just ban all cigarettes,” she said. But Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, a Black Democrat who sponsored the menthol-ban bill in the chamber, said that any economic argument against the proposal is outweighed by the thousands of tobacco-related deaths each year. The ban holds particular relevance to Bichotte, the majority whip: Her father died of lung cancer. “We’re talking about something that’s killing Black people, that was institutionally targeting a community,” she said.
Credit: New York Times.