House Passes Antismoking Bill Eliminating “Racist” Loophole. Law Would End “Menthol Slavery” Involving African Americans Using Tobacco Going Back Many Years
WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 28, 2020) – The House of Representatives has just passed, 213-195, HB 2339, “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019,” aimed at the unnecessary deaths, disability, and medical expenses caused by smoking tobacco cigarettes and the use of e-cigarettes.
It bans all flavorings – including menthol – in such products, thereby ending a racist loophole going back at least to 2009, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who joined with many African American leaders in fighting against exempting menthol from earlier flavoring bans.
The ban on flavoring is especially important in curbing the growing epidemic of addiction to nicotine among children being created by the use of e-cigarettes, argues Banzhaf, citing reports from the FDA that there was a 78% increase in current e-cigarette use by high school students, as well as a 48% increase among middle school students from 2017 to 2018.
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African Americans and tobacco
E-cigarettes, he notes, delivers nicotine, which is a deadly as well as highly addictive drug, and many teens eventually graduate from e-cigarettes to tobacco cigarettes to satisfy their addiction to nicotine.
Banzhaf supported removing what he and others called a “racist” exception, joining with former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan and other African American leaders against attempts to spare menthol cigarettes in earlier proposals because it is overwhelmingly used by Blacks, especially Black children.
At the time, former secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. blasted the exemption for menthol, saying it was “clearly putting black children in the back of the bus,” since an estimated 80% of African-American teenage smokers choose menthol brands, says Banzhaf.
That’s why this lethal “racist” loophole was condemned by the Congressional Black Caucus, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, many former HHS Secretaries, and by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH): “the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans-the segment of our population at greatest risk for the killing and crippling smoking-related diseases. It sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less.”
Other organizations noted: “If we’re banning things such as clove and peppermint, then we should ban menthol, . . . If it doesn’t happen, this bill will be discriminatory against African-Americans.”
History now seems to be repeating itself with efforts to target Black youngsters, says Banzhaf, noting an exhibit by the San Francisco Public Library entitled “Tobacco Industry’s [History of] Targeting of the Black Community; From Chattel Slavery to Menthol Slavery.”
Indeed, notes Banzhaf, the danger of e-cigarettes extends far beyond those deaths and severe lung damage recently caused by a variety of additives; teens who use e-cigarettes easily become addicted and move on to smoking of tobacco cigarettes with a 50% chance of killing the user.
Similar concerns were echoed by the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network which protested that ‘there is a social injustice in the predatory marketing and death related to menthol in our community.” Indeed, it’s nothing less than institutional racism, declares Natasha Phelps, Staff Attorney/Lead Minnesota Policy, Public Health Law Center: “The tobacco industry has long taken advantage of institutional racism . . . the scale of the problem is so great that we identify menthol as our commercial tobacco team’s top priority.”