Chairman of the Marion Board of Health John Howard had to note the “record turnout” of those in attendance on October 26 to join in the conversation about the board’s pursuit to ban flavored nicotine products – both flavored tobacco and flavored electronic nicotine – as well as menthol cigarettes.
Listed on the agenda was anti-tobacco Cheryl Sbarra, director of policy and law for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, who has been assisting the board in this matter for over a year. In her place was D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director for Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Wilson said that 101 Massachusetts cities and towns have already placed a ban on flavored tobacco and nicotine products, but without the inclusion of menthol cigarettes and the mint and wintergreen flavors.
“This started out in Providence,” said Wilson. In 2012, Providence passed an ordinance that adopted the federal government’s 2009 prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco, Wilson said. “They took it and expanded it … to not only include cigarettes … but the [flavored] juices inside e-cigarettes.”
The City of Providence was sued in Federal Court by the tobacco industry, and the tobacco industry lost in the Federal Court of Appeals, said Wilson. The tobacco industry chose not to pursue another appeal.
This is important, noted Wilson, because Marion shares the same Federal Court as Providence.
However, the same federal government prohibition of flavored tobacco exempts menthol cigarettes and mint or wintergreen nicotine products. Providence banned the sale of these products, except within adult-only establishments.
Essentially, the Board of Health would be attempting to make Marion the first municipality in the United States to fully ban menthol cigarettes, if not allowed for sale in adult-only establishments – of which there currently are none in Marion.
“It is a big deal for both the tobacco industry and Tobacco Control because a number of Americans either started or currently use menthol [cigarettes].”
Chris Banthin, director of the Tobacco Control Resource Center at the Public Health Advocacy Institute said, again, that his organization would be willing to represent the Marion Board of Health pro bono in Federal Court should the board proceed with its menthol cigarette ban and be sued by the tobacco industry.
Banthin’s stance: menthol cigarettes make it easier to become addicted.
“Documents point to the use of flavorings to make it easier to start smoking because smoking is a little bit harsh … particularly for kids,” said Banthin. “Menthol cools … so it allows an addiction to connect.” It also makes quitting more difficult, Banthin added.
“While other cigarette rates have dropped, we’ve seen the use of menthol go down very little,” said Banthin. He urged Marion to “get to the heart of it.”
“A ban on menthol would go a long way towards that end,” said Banthin.
Banthin then addressed some of the points expressed in a letter earlier this month from the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.
“There were concerns expressed by that association regarding the potential impact on the black community,” said Banthin. “[They] raised an unfounded fear that members of the black community would be targeted or disproportionately impacted because they possess a menthol cigarette.”
That’s wrong, said Banthin, “For a number of reasons.”
“It’s not the possession that’s banned; it’s the sale,” said Banthin. “So someone could possess it and they’re not going to be targeted.”
“The sale is not entirely banned,” continued Banthin. “It would be allowed in adult-only facilities, so those adults who wanted to acquire menthol cigarettes would have to go to an adult facility.”
Furthermore, said Banthin, it would not be a police enforcement matter; rather, it would be the Board of Health enforcing the regulation, since the BOH is the body that issues the licenses to sell tobacco.
“It wouldn’t go after possession,” said Banthin.
One issue that MAMLEO brought up, said Banthin, does ring true – the impact that menthol cigarettes have had on the African American community. Roughly 83 percent of menthol cigarette smokers are minorities.
“And really this is unfortunate. It’s a concern, but it’s not surprising,” said Banthin, “but since the 1950s the tobacco industry has targeted the sale of cigarettes to the African American community.”
Banthin stated that during the early 2000s, Ebony magazine was ten times more likely to feature a cigarette ad than People Magazine.
“So there’s a real targeting effort and unfortunately that effort was successful,” said Banthin. “[There is a] disproportionate impact of menthol on the African American community.”
Dennis Lane of the Coalition for Responsible Retailing, a steady attendee at recent BOH meetings, said of course everyone believes that smoking kills, but even a report from The Journal of National Cancer Institute concluded that smoking menthol cigarettes was associated with a lower lung cancer rate than smoking regular cigarettes. (That article stating, “The findings suggest that menthol cigarettes are no more, and perhaps less, harmful than nonmenthol [sic] cigarettes,” can be found at https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/103/10/810/2516529/Lung-Cancer-Risk-Among-Smokers-of-Menthol?searchresult=1).
“My recommendation … is to allow the FDA and Congress to take this on,” said Lane. “It makes no common sense to ban menthol, which is deemed to be somewhat less harmful.… What sense does it make to ban menthol cigarettes and not regular cigarettes?”
Lane closed his remarks by saying, “I don’t think it’s my decision or the decision of anyone is this room what adult minority smokers can smoke … If I were black American … I would be upset if someone banned a product I used, but didn’t ban products that non-minorities use. Banning menthol and not banning non-menthol cigarettes in Marion is counterintuitive,” said Lane. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Next up was Denise DePina Reed, vice president of MAMLEO. She said that many in the black community of Boston who smoke menthol cigarettes are unaware of what Marion is attempting to do.
“So to talk about banning menthol cigarettes, it’s new to them. I was just made aware of what you’re doing,” said Reed, “so I would say they need to be at the table, because you’re talking about taking away something that they do.”
Reed emphasized that she is not a smoker and, although smoking is unhealthy, “Smoking is important … It’s a fact of life here.”
The Marion BOH’s attempt to ban menthol cigarettes, Reed stated, is an example of another 21st century attempt on prohibition.
“Every time the government tries to ban something, it seems to cause other problems,” said Reed, “and another example of government action that disproportionately affects the black community,” which would be driven to the underground market to sell and purchase menthol cigarettes. “They’re going to get these cigarettes one way or another … and it’s gonna be illegal and that’s gonna be another problem with law enforcement,” she said.
Reed turned to the 2014 death of Eric Gardner, who was suffocated while NYPD officers attempted to arrest Garner for selling loose cigarettes on the street.
“I would ask this board of lovely ladies and gentlemen to rethink what you’re doing,” Reed said. “It probable won’t impact your life, but it will impact other people.”
Matthew Duran, manager of government affairs & public policy for Cumberland Farms, said a ban on menthol cigarettes would interrupt the company’s success in providing living wage jobs and careers in regional communities.
“To try to ban something that accounts for … twenty-five to fifty percent of [the sales] of a convenience store like ours,” said Duran, “That is a scary prospect, because you’re essentially shutting us down. You might as well ban all tobacco.”
Members of the board had no questions related to the statement made by the presenters, nor did they make any comments.
The next meeting of the Marion Board of Health is scheduled for November 14 at 4:30 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Board of Health
By Jean Perry