Why the state wants to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes
Health concerns cited, but some oppose move
BUFFALO NEXT EXPLAINER
T he debate over Gov. Kathy Hochul's state budget proposal to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes is heating up. As part of her proposed budget, Hochul suggested banning the sale of all flavored vaping and tobacco products, and increasing the cigarette tax from $4.35 to $5.35 per pack.
The move to ban menthol cigarettes was applauded by health advocates, including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association. But plenty of people have come out against the proposal, including convenience store owners, faith leaders in the Black community and law enforcement officers.
Why ban it? Proponents of the ban say menthol flavoring entices children to use tobacco and consequently become addicted, which is backed up by studies, including a recent one by the University of California San Diego. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also has proposed prohibiting menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars to prevent youth from smoking and to reduce tobacco-related illnesses and death.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
"We know that menthol makes tobacco products easier to start and harder to quit," Dr. James McDonald, Acting State Health Commissioner, said in a statement.
A 2018 survey from the anti-tobacco campaign Truth Initiative showed that a majority of Black people (60.5%) and Latino people (69.3%) supported the ban of menthol products, as did 1 in 4 smokers.
"Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes would reduce the ease of experimenting with cigarettes, particularly to younger users, and encourage people who smoke menthol cigarettes to quit," the American Lung Association said on its website.
Who opposes the ban and why? Opponents of the ban – including law enforcement officers and convenience store owners and employees – say it will not prevent people from smoking. It will only hurt small businesses and their employees, encourage the illegal sale of cigarettes and put additional stress on law enforcement to uphold.
"Prohibitionist policies and regressive taxes such as these will only hurt small businesses, strengthen the illicit market, eliminate jobs and have no impact on public health," New York Association of Convenience Stores President Kent Sopris said.
New Yorkers who want to smoke these cigarettes will be able to buy them in neighboring states and on tribal lands. Or, they will buy them illegally on the streets.
"My concern is with law enforcement," retired New York State police officer Elliott Boyce said. "Now law enforcement officers that are already strained as far as resources and being able to deal with felony crimes, gang activity. Now they're going to have another thing placed on their plate, which is a ban on menthol cigarettes."
Counties will also lose out on millions of dollars in tax revenue generated by the sale of cigarettes. Last year, Erie County raised nearly $3.7 million in sales tax from cigarettes, while Niagara County brought in $730,000, according to data from NYS Tax Department and the U.S. General Accountability Office.
"Prohibitions do not work," said Wayne Harris, retired Rochester deputy police chief and current board chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. "It did not work with alcohol. It did not work with the war on drugs, and it most certainly will not work for menthol or flavored tobacco products."
Black faith leaders have also spoken out against the ban.
Who might be affected most by the ban?
Of Black people who smoke, 85% smoke menthol cigarettes, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Last month, Black faith leaders urged Hochul to create a commission on menthol cigarettes instead of trying to ban them. It is not that they want to advocate smoking, they said, but they fear the ban would disproportionately affect Black people if it goes through. First, by creating a market for out-of state cigarettes and, second, by making Black people a target for police.
"A prohibition will drive people just a few miles down the road to reservations to purchase legal, menthol and flavored tobacco while police stop Buffalo's residents and ask where they purchased the menthol cigarettes," said the Rev. Frank Bostic, pastor of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Michigan Avenue.
What has happened in other places that have banned menthol tobacco products?
Canada was the first country to ban menthol cigarettes, in 2015. A recent study from researchers at the University of Waterloo for the World Health Organization found that banning menthol cigarettes didn't lead to more people buying illicit cigarettes, as the ban opponents have said would happen. The study found no change in the number of people who bought illicit cigarettes on tribal lands.
Another study of Canadian smokers using data from the International Tobacco Control Project found more menthol smokers than regular cigarette smokers quit smoking after the ban went into effect. It also found there was a 7.3% increase in smoking cessation after the ban.
In June 2020, Massachusetts implemented a law prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. According to the Reason Foundation, a California think tank, cigarette sales decreased by 22% in the state after the ban, but increased by 33 million in the five states bordering Massachusetts.
"A prohibition will drive people just a few miles down the road to reservations to purchase legal, menthol and flavored tobacco while police stop Buffalo's residents and ask where they purchased the menthol cigarettes." – Rev. Frank Bostic, pastor of Pilgrim
Missionary Baptist Church on Michigan Avenue