As the Biden administration moves closer to banning menthol cigarettes — the type of cigarettes used by the vast majority of Black smokers — debates have emerged between Black leaders and experts concerning the wisdom of this move. Last week, Blavity spoke to attorney Benjamin Crump, who argues that the proposed ban will fail to achieve its intended effects while having a negative unintended consequence for Black communities. Crump is not alone in expressing this worry, with the Rev. Al Sharpton delivering similar warnings to the White House. Other leading Black figures and organizations, however, are in favor of the ban. Blavity recently spoke to Portia White, NAACP Vice President of Policy and Legislative Affair, who spoke of her organization’s support for the ban.

The menthol cigarette ban is "a big win for Black health"

White acknowledged that there was opposition to the menthol ban but was unequivocal in her support for the proposed policy. “Despite the opposition from those that we expect to have an opposition and those that are unexpected,” she declared, “this is a big win for Black health.”

White attributes much of the opposition to the new policy to the tobacco industry, which she says has been “placing their poison in the hands of our youth.” She laments the government’s neglect in not banning menthol cigarettes years earlier, pointing to research conducted by the FDA that “concluded that if they removed menthol from the marketplace, it would significantly enhance public health, it would save many Black lives.”

“Let’s not be fooled,” White said of arguments about the criminal justice impacts of the menthol ban. She warned that the argument linking the ban to possible policing effects is “a smokescreen to take your thoughts off really the best piece of this, which is that we’re saving some of those 47,000 lives, Black lives that are lost to tobacco-related diseases.” This life-saving impact, White added, would be in addition to lowering premature births and infant mortality and decreasing the prevalence of “heart disease, diabetes, COPD, lung disease” and other chronic illnesses that arise from smoking.

Separating health and criminal justice issues

Addressing opposition from leaders such as Crump and Sharpton, White acknowledges their differences while sticking to her position. “I admire Ben Crump. I admire Al Sharpton. I admire many of the civic leaders who are on the opposite side of the aisle,” White prefaced, adding that “it really is unfortunate that they are buying in on the rhetoric and using that from the tobacco industry.”

White disagrees with the argument that, by criminalizing menthol cigarettes, the new policy would create pretexts for police to harass Black smokers and cigarette sellers and lead to more deaths like that of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a police officer after being stopped for selling “loosie” cigarettes.

“Let’s face it. Eric Gardner was killed by a police officer because he was Black,” adding that “in my opinion, it was inconsequential that he actually had in his hand a loosie.” Pointing toward racial bias in Garner’s death, White argues that “he could have had a piece of paper in his hand, it still would have happened, because he was targeted for a completely different reason.”

Working together to save Black lives

Although White and the NAACP are currently on opposite sides of the menthol debate from leaders such as Crump and Sharpton, White maintains hope that they can still come to a common understanding and “join together” on this issue. Despite their differences, these leaders all want “to help create healthy environments” for Black people while also “really going toward police reform.” While she acknowledges the need to think through any “unintended consequences” of the menthol cigarette ban, White says that the health policy-based cigarette plan and police reform are fundamental “two different issues.”

Concerning the argument that the menthol ban will not lead smokers to quit the habit, White points toward proposed legislation such as the Health Equity and Accountability Act that would provide for “tobacco cessation support within the community” to help break the addiction to cigarettes for smokers. Overall, White believes that “there is a greater concern today for equity, and justice and for eradicating racism.” And that the menthol cigarette ban is a step toward accomplishing these goals.

“A part of institutional racism is also the fact that certain companies and organizations have been allowed to do what they’ve done within our communities,” White said,  “and the tobacco industry is a true reflection of what has been allowed, as far as ravishing our people, our community and really putting our minds in our support. In a way that’s been ill-advised for us.” Therefore, White argues, the menthol cigarette ban “is just a piece of elevating and elevating the need to eradicate racism, and to bring to our country equity, justice, for all public health concerns that we have.”