Gwendolyn Carr, the mother of Eric Garner—who was killed by NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo with a chokehold while being arrested for selling loosie cigarettes in 2014—has come out come against a proposed ban on sales of menthol cigarettes in New York City. She is joined by Sybrina Fulton, whose son Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Florida by George Zimmerman in 2012.
In an October 16 letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who faces enormous pressure to ban menthol cigarettes, the two women wrote, “We urge you to pay very close attention to the unintended effects of a ban on menthol cigarettes and what it would mean for communities of color…”
The City Council is currently considering two bills—one that would ban sales of menthol cigarettes and another that would do the same for flavored vapes. Johnson has said he supports the vapes ban—even though he himself uses Juul—but is undecided over menthol cigarettes.
Carr and Fulton are right to be concerned. Black Americans are the top consumers of menthol cigarettes; over 88 percent of African-American smokers prefer menthols to unflavored cigarettes and they comprise around 30 percent of the overall menthol market.
Drug bans of any kind have to be enforced, and enforcement criminalizes people. The NYPD has a notorious and well-documented history of disproportionately targeting people of color through stop-and-frisk, even though all races use drugs at similar rates.
“Both of us work with black youth throughout the country, including in New York City,” wrote Carr and Fulton. “We have seen the casualties of bad policies that have created unfortunate encounters with law enforcement.”
“When you ban a product sold mostly in black communities,” they continued, “you must consider the reality of what will happen to that very same over-represented community in the criminal justice system … We are concerned that the ban will create a whole new market for loosies and re-introduce another version of stop and frisk in black, financially challenged communities where aggressive policing is a full reality…”
“Cigarettes preferred by black New Yorkers would be illegal. Cigarettes preferred by non-black New Yorkers would be legal.”
The 50-year War on Drugs has demonstrated conclusively that prohibition doesn’t eliminate drug markets or people’s desire to use banned substances. It does make those substances more dangerous. Alcohol and heroin prohibition are stark past-and-present examples of this, respectively causing the rise of tainted bootleg liquor and fentanyl.
Moreover, it isn’t just drug bans that generate illicit markets; excessive taxation does the same. The exorbitant cost of cigarettes in New York City—the average pack price, at $12.85, is the highest in the nation—is the reason a robust loosie economy exists across the five boroughs. There is no doubt that illicit markets for menthol cigarettes and flavored vapes will boom in the event of bans.
A recent article in Filter detailed the potential negative impact on both sellers and buyers of illicit market menthol cigarettes. In New York City, the penalty for selling illegal cigarettes is currently a $600-per-carton fine, as well as criminal charges. Non-payment of fines by New Yorkers who can’t afford them frequently leads to arrest and jail or prison time.
Carr and Fulton called out the plain racism of a menthols ban, writing, “Banning menthol cigarettes means that cigarettes preferred by black New Yorkers would be illegal. Cigarettes preferred by non-black New Yorkers would be legal.”
For all of these reasons, drug policy reform advocates from the Law Enforcement Action Partnership*, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement and the Harm Reduction Coalition, among others, have come out in opposition to a menthols ban, as Filter has reported.
Because banning menthol cigarettes—with consequences that Carr and Fulton circumspectly described as “unintended”—would in fact have a perfectly clear purpose: the creation of another racist pipeline into the criminal justice system.
* LEAP is the fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.
Photo of Gwendolyn Carr via Gwen Carr