Last time it was the Coalition for Responsible Retailing (CRR) and a Marion liquor store owner asking the Marion Board of Health to reconsider a pending bylaw to ban flavored tobacco and nicotine products, including menthol cigarettes; on October 10 it was the non-profit Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO), and the Washington D.C. based think tank R Street Institute.
In a letter dated September 27 from MAMLEO President Larry Ellison, Ellison says his association stands with the Board of Health in its initiative to discourage minors and adults from using tobacco products, but warned the board that a ban on menthol cigarettes would have unintended consequences – something introduced to the BOH last meeting by Dennis Lane of the CRR.
It’s no secret, writes Ellison, that members of the minority communities comprise the majority of menthol cigarette smokers, and a ban on menthol would have a disproportionate impact on them.
“Understanding that Marion has a very small community of color, the Board of Health may not be fully aware of these consequences,” wrote Ellison, “and I therefore feel obligated to respectfully bring them to your attention. This is particularly important if your intent in banning menthol comes with the hope that other communities will follow your actions.”
According to Ellison, 30 percent of cigarettes in the state arrive from outside Massachusetts and are sold on the black market. Banning menthol cigarettes or limiting access to them would cause the criminal market to expand, place an additional “unfunded burden on law enforcement,” and lead to “a disproportionate impact [that] this illicit trade will have on communities of color.”
Banning menthol cigarettes, asserts Ellison, would create “yet another opportunity to criminalize the Black community by enabling the excuse for biased law enforcement.”
“Finding a menthol cigarette in the wrong car, at the wrong time could be justified by some as cause for further investigation, and a deeper violation of civil rights merely because the individual is a smoker,” says Ellison. “It may sound like a dramatization to suggest such a scenario, but one need only look at the national news to see it is a reality in our nation, and it causes great harm to many people while it puts the law enforcement officers at great risk.”
It seems senseless to make matters worse for the Black community, wrote Ellison, by making a product illegal instead of furthering anti-tobacco education and stricter enforcement of sales “that protect all citizens, including minors equally.”
After the meeting last month, BOH member Betsy Dunn commented that the intent of the menthol ban was never related to race, asking, “Why do they always have to make something racial? I find that unconscionable.”
Nicolas John, Northeast regional manager of the R Street Institute, asked the board to reconsider banning flavored electronic nicotine products and cautioned against banning mint, menthol, peppermint, and wintergreen flavors, particularly because they are popular with adults, especially those who have switched from traditional combustible cigarettes to the seemingly safer e-cigarette.
John advocated for tobacco harm reduction, emphasizing the role that e-cigs and ‘vaping’ have in reducing cigarette-related diseases.
Banning flavored electronic nicotine discourages smokers from seeking the safer alternative, said John.
“While well-intentioned, this legislation will adversely affect public health by limiting access to safer alternatives to combustible cigarettes to the very people that this bill aims to protect,” said John.
John urged the board to consider Public Health New England’s conclusion that e-cigs are “no less than 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes.”
“I applaud the efforts of the Marion Board of Health to reduce prevalence of smoking and associated diseased,” said John. “However, it is important that the potential of e-cigarettes to mitigate risks associated with combustible cigarettes be recognized if we wish to encourage a healthful populace.”
The board was satisfied and asked no further questions, nor did members make comments on the content of the discussion.
The next meeting of the Marion Board of health is scheduled for October 24 at 4:30 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Board of Health
By Jean Perry