Dear Honorable Legislators:
I urge you to carefully consider the unintended effects of a Westchester County ban on menthol cigarettes and what it would mean in communities of color. We have seen the irreversible harm when policies enacted with the best of intentions are translated into practice. Our goal in reaching out to you is to raise the concerns we see now, rather than looking back months or years from now, and wishing we had considered the full impact of such a policy.
In no way do we encourage, support, or promote smoking. As we understand this proposal, it would not ban all cigarettes but would ban one category, which just happens to be the category that most black smokers prefer. Our fear is that banning the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes will not stop their production or purchase but will instead open the floodgates for smuggling and for people living outside of our communities to offer members of our communities another forbidden and valuable item on a platter of illegal substances already plaguing our neighborhoods. The street value of loosies is already high. Banning menthol cigarettes will only increase the value and attractiveness. While we have been told that black smokers will not be criminalized for possessing menthol cigarettes, that does not match our experience with other cigarette policies and how policing is done in communities of color.
Recently, we participated in criminal justice panel discussion led by attorney Ben Crump at the National Action Network convention. We shared our experiences about how hard we are all working to improve youth interaction with police and to make sure our communities are safe for our children and law enforcement officers of goodwill. At the municipal level, our court system is full of young African American males being held for misdemeanor offenses and violations of local ordinances. In the communities where we live and work, probable cause means a whole different level of law enforcement interaction with our young people – it simply is not like in other communities. We have more than enough challenges now. We do not need another stop and frisk policy. While the penalties may not be heavy, the cost to our communities will be great. Once someone is arrested, fingerprinted, and into our court system, it already sets them back from gainful employment, access to home loans or small business loans, taking them out of play in families already struggling economically to provide.
When you ban a product sold mostly in Black communities – as 80% of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes – but do not have the same ban in other communities, you must consider the fairness of such an approach as well as the reality of what will happen to that very same overrepresented community in the criminal justice system. We ask Westchester County Legislators to establish a commission to receive input from affected stakeholders and carefully consider the criminal justice implications of this proposed ban. If Westchester County Legislators decide to move forward with the proposed menthol ban without such consideration, it will unleash an unintended consequences storm in our community, which many members of our community would find quite discriminatory. We cannot afford to stand by and let that happen.
Every day, there are unwritten stories about negative consequences turning lethal. I feel very strongly as my son, Eric Garner, was a victim to a violent and lethal, encounter with police over allegedly selling loosies due to an unfair tobacco tax policy. I must raise my voice when I see an opportunity to do better by our communities and to our children.
Mother of Eric Garner
Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, Ms. Carr attended the Blacks in Law Enforcement of America and former Mayor of Mount Vernon Andre Wallace hosted community panel, “Is the Menthol Cigarette Ban the New Stop and Frisk?” in Mount Vernon, to hear about the proposed favor nicotine ban proposed by the Westchester County Legislators. This letter is in response to what she heard at the town hall forum.
You can check out all our previous coverage and panel discussions on the menthol cigarette ban here