California must ban menthol cigarettes to protect Black lives from Big Tobacco’s greed

By Karen Bass Special to The Sacramento Bee

Recent incidents of police brutality against Black Americans have forced our nation to confront racism and injustice in its many forms.

As we continue to push to protect Black lives, we must put an end to one of the most pernicious destroyers of Black health and lives: deadly menthol cigarettes and the tobacco industry’s decades-long targeted marketing to our kids and communities.

Big Tobacco’s greedy and ruthless strategy has worked all too well. In the 1950s, fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who smoked used menthol cigarettes. It didn’t take long for tobacco executives to see that young Black Americans preferred candy-like menthol over traditional tobacco flavor. Soon, slick marketing campaigns started appearing across Black media and neighborhoods – all designed to hook a new generation on menthol cigarettes.

Today, over 80 percent of Black smokers use menthols as the direct result of Big Tobacco’s predatory marketing. The menthol in cigarettes makes it easier for young people to start smoking and harder for adult smokers to quit. The results have been devastating. The data doesn’t lie.

Black Americans die from heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and other tobacco-related diseases at rates far higher than others. Roughly 45,000 Black men and women are dying at the hands of Big Tobacco every single year. 

“It’s time for tobacco companies to be held accountable. How many more Black lives have to be lost to menthol cigarettes before anyone listens? Other flavored cigarettes are banned, but why is menthol still on the market?  

I am not new to this issue. Earlier this year, I joined Speaker Nancy Pelosi in introducing legislation to prohibit all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed with support from the vast majority of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. But the Senate isn’t likely to take it up in the current Congress and California can’t wait. By passing Senate Bill 793 now, California can set the right example for the nation, as it has done on so many critical issues.

SB 793, a bill making its way through the California State Legislature, is our state’s chance to finally stand up to Big Tobacco and say no to the sale of menthol cigarettes in our communities. Importantly, this bill in no way penalizes the members of our community who use these products and does not provide an excuse for more policing in our community; it only punishes the retailers who continue to sell these prohibited products.

As with so many other injustices we face, this problem is not new. For far too long, tobacco companies have continuously been allowed to market their deadly products in our communities without regard for the enormous cost in Black lives and health, despite repeated calls for action to force them to stop. Today and every day, more than 120 Black Americans are killed by tobacco, yet tobacco companies spend their profits on high-powered lobbyists and political donations to prevent the government from taking action to protect the health of our community and our children.

Tobacco companies have spent billions of dollars over the last seventy years to hook our kids and communities on their poisonous products, reaping billions more in profits from our addiction. And then to divert attention from the harm they are causing, they make modest donations to groups like anti-racism non-profits, which they then widely promote. These “gifts” don’t atone for the lives they’ve taken, and they should no longer serve as an excuse for inaction.

Our lives have never mattered to tobacco companies, and no donation or press release can change that. There is nothing “minty” or “refreshing” about the cycle of addiction, profit and death Big Tobacco has wrought by pushing their poison in our communities. Now is the time for us to finally hold them accountable.

For too long, past efforts to end menthol sales have been stymied by the tobacco industry’s donations to elected officials. We can’t repeat that history now. 

Policymakers who believe that our lives matter must align their votes with their calls for justice by ending the sale of menthol cigarettes and menthol tobacco products in California. Doing so will save lives, and bring an end to this cycle of addiction and exploitation of Black lives for financial gain.

SB 793 would also end the sale of candy-flavored e-cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products. The tobacco industry’s latest ploy is to hook a new generation of high schoolers to bubble gum, cotton candy and gummy bear vape products. While addressing this new problem, the California legislature cannot let Big Tobacco carve out a loophole for minty menthol, this would allow them to continue to prey on Black communities with their candy-flavored poison.

 Legislators must pass SB 793 and stop tobacco from taking Black lives.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who represents Culver City and parts of Los Angeles in Washington, DC

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