In her State of the State address in January, Governor Kathy Hochul called for a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products and an increase in the cigarette tax from $4.35 to $5.35 per pack. “These measures will lead the way to a tobacco-free generation, reduce youth smoking and prevent senseless death,” she asserted.
Even as state smoking rates for both adults (12%) and high school students (2.4%) have steadily decreased, tobacco use still remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death. Over 28,000 adults in NYS die each year from smoking, including exposure to secondhand smoke; 750,000 live with smoking-related illness; 27% of all cancer deaths are attributable to tobacco. Annual health care costs directly caused by smoking total $9.7 billion, including $2.7 in Medicaid payments.
The public health case against menthol and other flavors is well-documented. In a 2011 report detailing its findings on menthol cigarettes, the FDA concluded that they are more addictive, create more dependence, and are harder to quit than unflavored brands. Menthol is especially popular with teen and young adult smokers and with African-American smokers, over 80% of whom use a menthol brand. The FDA report estimated that a ban on menthol cigarettes would cause more than a third of menthol users to quit, prevent 17,000 fewer premature deaths, and prevent nearly 2.3 million new youth smokers within 10 years.
Menthol, mint and other flavors are added to improve taste and to reduce the harsh, bitter sensation of inhaling tobacco smoke or chewing tobacco, and they are especially appealing to young people. Of current tobacco users, 80% of adolescents 12-17 and 75% of young adults 18-25 report that the first tobacco product they ever used was flavored. Little cigars, cigarillos and smokeless tobacco are sold in a variety of fruit and candy flavors and are cheaper than cigarettes, making them perfect “starter” products for novice adolescents. In NYS, over twice as many high school students (6.1%) use these products as smoke cigarettes.
The Governor’s proposal has many strong supporters, but there is also opposition already lined up and on the offensive. The NYS Association of Convenience Stores was quick out of the gate with a warning that it would jeopardize small businesses. This is the same warning it has issued in response to every other proposed tobacco control measure; convenience stores themselves seem to carry on much as before.
The tobacco industry, of course, has a huge stake in the outcome because menthols constitute almost 40% of all cigarette sales; flavored cigars make up more than half of the U.S cigar sales. Newport, the best selling menthol brand, makes up over half of all cigarette sales for R.J Reynolds, which has been aggressive in protecting its products and bottom line from regulatory threat. Count on them to be lobbying forcefully up front and behind the scenes, sometimes by underwriting opposition groups.
Attempting to influence the menthol debate by engaging Black organizations is another industry tactic. Last year, after the FDA announced its plan to ban menthol cigarettes, Horace Sheffield, a pastor and prominent Black civil rights campaigner in Detroit, reported that he had been offered up to $250,000 by R.J Reynolds to speak out publicly against it. Tobacco companies have also helped spread misinformation about how enforcement of a flavor ban could lead to police targeting in black communities. This is, understandably, something that resonates profoundly in those communities. The fact is that the proposed law only applies to manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. It does not make it a crime for any person to purchase, possess or use a flavored tobacco product. The law will be enforced by the Health Department, not the police. The NAACP, Center for Black Health & Equity, the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership, and the National Medical Association all support a menthol ban.
If the law is enacted, New York will become the third state, after Massachusetts and California, to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco (New York banned the sale of flavored vape products in 2020). The next few weeks will determine whether it succeeds.
The Healthcare Consortium is a non-profit organization with a mission of improving access to healthcare and supporting the health and well-being of the residents in our rural community. The agency is located at 325 Columbia St. in Hudson. For more information: visit www.columbiahealthnet.org or call 518-822-8820.
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