Menthol Bans Fail to Reduce Smoking While Creating Additional Tensions Between Police & Communities of Color
On Wednesday, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership released a letter sent to the FDA this week urging federal regulators to reject a citizen proposal to ban menthol tobacco products. Banning drugs is an escalation of the drug war, a policy scheme that Americans across the political spectrum agree isn’t working.
To: Mitch Zeller, JD
Director, Center for Tobacco Products
Dear Mr. Zeller,
I write to you both as a retired lieutenant and as the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). LEAP is a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice professionals who speak from firsthand experience to endorse evidence-based public safety policies. Our mission is to make communities safer by focusing law enforcement resources on the most serious priorities, promoting alternatives to arrest and incarceration, addressing the root causes of crime, and healing police-community relations.
I speak on behalf of more than 5,000 current and retired members of law enforcement across the country. We believe law enforcement voices should be heard in consideration of tobacco bans because they know just how much these prohibitions damage trust between police and communities of color without effectively reducing youth tobacco use.
The mere idea that we should legally prohibit menthol, the preferred choice of Black smokers, disregards the legacy of tension — as well as the present conflict — between police and communities of color. I was an officer during Rodney King, yet I have never seen such a high level of sustained tension between police and communities as we have witnessed together since the murders of George Floyd Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, and others.
Prohibiting menthol and other flavors creates an underground market. Demand is high, supply is scarce, and people who need the income — such as those living in low-income communities — have a financial incentive to illegally sell those products.
We all know how this story goes. Last year, an unarmed 14-year-old Black child in Rancho Cordova was assaulted by an officer over a cigarillo. In 2014, Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man and father of six, was choked to death while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. These interactions destroy police-community trust and make our difficult jobs that much harder. People who do not trust us do not report crimes, even when they themselves are the victim. People who do not trust police are not just mistrusting; they are afraid. They are more afraid of us than they are of being victimized again.
What this says about our laws is that we have to think deliberately about what we ask police to enforce. Creating more reason for police to enter communities of color and have negative interactions is bad for all of us.
We also need to look at history and see what happens when a product is banned. The prohibition of alcohol and the laws against marijuana both provide excellent examples. Thus far, menthol products have been able to be obtained legally and so they are manufactured and sold by regulated businesses. That means ensuring the product goes through rigid quality control, that the market is professionally run, and that those selling them don’t sell to kids. It also means a lot of tax revenue.
If menthol becomes illegal however, none of this will apply. As we saw with alcohol and marijuana, when a popular product is banned, that just means the market will be run by criminal organizations who can make huge profits in this space to finance all of their other activities. They will grow stronger and more dangerous.
But if we know what doesn’t work, we also know what does. Instead of giving the police yet another public health problem we cannot fix, we should instead invest in anti-smoking education and prevention resources for the communities that need it most.
Anyone who cares about public safety, public health, and the growing divide between police and communities, especially communities of color, should be alarmed by thoughts of a menthol ban. If it passes, we can expect more negative interactions between police and communities, and stronger criminal organizations with little change in tobacco use. Please include law enforcement voices in the consideration of the lawsuit — they will tell you that a menthol ban would be bad for police-community trust, weaken protections for children, and strengthen criminal organizations, all with little effect on supply or demand. We’ve seen it with alcohol, we’ve seen it with marijuana. I beg you not to let it happen with menthol.
Thank you for your time,
Lieutenant Diane Goldstein (Ret.)
Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership