By Jason Altmire
The Biden administration will soon decide whether to ban menthol cigarettes. While there is no question that some who are advocating for the ban have the best of intentions, the special interests that are pushing the ban do not. Their lobbying threatens to exacerbate problems in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.
Menthol cigarettes are not like the illegal, disposable flavored vapes being marketed to Pennsylvania’s children, plaguing commonwealth schools. Adults are capable of making their own decisions and should be permitted to do so.
Advocates of the ban, such as former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, do not appear to be aware (or willing to accept) that many of this nation’s leading criminal justice experts believe a menthol ban would be detrimental to race relations while lacking any semblance of a public health benefit. Instead of discussing the unintended consequences of a federal menthol ban, these advocates have resorted to portraying anyone who disagrees with their position as a stooge for Big Tobacco.
Even Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who infamously died in a police chokehold for selling loose menthol cigarettes, opposes the ban because she believes it will exacerbate this country’s already alarming racial policing disparities, leading to more tragic deaths like her son’s. Prominent civil rights and policing advocates and groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and George Floyd’s legal team have expressed the same concerns. Unlike the industry interests pushing this ban, these civil rights organizations are willing to admit that a menthol ban would worsen the existing problems with the nation’s criminal justice system.
Eighty-five percent of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes compared to just 34 percent of white smokers. With the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Racial Injustice Report finding that black defendants get charged far more than whites in many of the most common criminal charges (they also comprise nearly 70 percent of Philadelphia’s police stops despite covering less than 40 percent of its population), it is easy to see why banning a product used disproportionately by the black community could worsen their disproportionate run-ins with police.
When signing legislation to decriminalize marijuana in Philadelphia, Nutter stated, “this type of action will keep kids out of the criminal-justice system, will keep people’s records clean so they can get a job.” Why is Nutter extolling the positive criminal justice virtues of decriminalizing one smoking product while dismissing the negative implications of criminalizing another that is overwhelmingly used by black Philadelphians?
Pennsylvania’s police departments are already struggling with staffing shortages and budgetary shortfalls. In April, for example, the Philadelphia Police Department requested $855 million — $55.7 million increase from the previous year — due to these very concerns. The commonwealth’s officers already find themselves stretched too thin. They need to focus on addressing violent crime, not addressing a public health matter.
As Lt. Dianne Goldstein, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Partnership, put it, “This ruling will continue to perpetuate health and policing disparities in communities of color instead of alleviating either issue or problem.” Why? Because “it’s going to affect black people and black communities, while leaving others untouched — because for some reason the FDA thinks it’s acceptable to criminalize the choices of black smokers in the name of their own health, while not extending the same ‘protection’ to other smokers.”
Goldstein is right — law enforcement is not the proper forum to address this issue.
Over the last three years, the Biden administration’s advisers and appointees have prioritized expanding healthcare access and fixing the broken criminal justice system. They should do so again by discarding this wolf in sheep’s clothing public health initiative. The nation’s criminal justice system can’t afford yet another hit to its credibility. ••
Jason Altmire, a Democrat, served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013. He has been an executive in both the hospital and health insurance industries and is currently an adjunct professor of health care management at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.