By Reverend Al Sharpton and Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.
Many of our leaders are seeking policies designed to close the gap in racial and ethnic health disparities and ensure justice and equity in communities of color.
And even though many Black Americans have made significant advances, far too many are still burdened with poverty and poor health. Compounding this situation is the tense relationship between police and the Black community because of use of excessive force, profiling, over-incarceration, and selective prosecution.
It stands to reason why some public health professionals seek to ban or prohibit some selected harmful products.
In 1920, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor.
The good intentions of those who supported the prohibition tried to reduce drunkenness, crime, accidents and deaths associated with the use and abuse of alcohol.
But, the prohibition of alcohol (1920-1933) was extremely difficult to enforce and led to underground activities of black markets developed controlled by the Mafia and gangs in communities. The unintended consequences of alcohol prohibition outweighed the good intent of the prohibition.
Likewise, a ban on menthol cigarettes has been proposed to reduce smoking among African Americans. And since over 80 percent of African Americans who choose to smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes, prohibitions, restrictions and bans would affect Black communities more than other communities in America.
When police have to spend time enforcing prohibitions and bans, they have less time to focus on solving violent crime and ensuring public safety. With tensions between police and the Black community so high a menthol ban could make a bad situation in the criminal justice system worse for Blacks.
We do agree that smoking is bad and not good for public health. We support the regulation of the manufacture and sale of tobacco products, especially to youth.
We strongly encourage Black people to stop smoking and educate our youth about the dangers of smoking. The National Action Network and the National Newspaper Publishers Association do not promote smoking nor endorse or advertise smoking products.
Our concerns about the impact of a menthol ban are based on our experience and understanding of how law enforcement works when bans and prohibitions are imposed.
On June 22, 2009, when President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, it gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comprehensive authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco products.
The good intent of the law is to reduce smoking that is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
We are very concerned that a ban on menthol cigarettes would give police another way to interact negatively in Black communities on the retail level or with individual citizens for a low-level, non-violent offense.
History has proven that education and treatment are more successful than prohibitions.
Young people are less likely to smoke if they get open, honest health information and tools to deal with peer pressure. Adults who smoke are more likely to make healthier decisions when they have access to counseling, treatment, smoking cessation aids to help manage stress.
We welcome this public discussion about smoking, at the same time, we hold our public health professionals and policymakers accountable for the health disparities and poor health outcomes in the Black community.
We urge the policymakers not to defer to the criminal justice system by imposing prohibitions, bans and the threat of punishment to solve an urgent public health crisis.
In the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Rev. Al Sharpton is the founder and president of National Action Network. Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Follow Rev. Sharpton on Twitter @TheRevAl and follow Dr. Chavis on Twitter @DrBenChavis.