By Faith Petrie, Contributing Writer
LOS ANGELES — A bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in California was the subject of a small demonstration Aug. 20 in downtown Los Angeles.
About 100 criminal justice, homeless and substance recovery advocates walked the streets surrounding the Ronald Reagan State Building, hoping to raise awareness about Senate Bill 793.
The bill would prohibit any tobacco retailer and vending machines in California from selling flavored tobacco products including e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.
Hookah tobacco retailers are not affected by SB 793. Many of the protesters oppose the portion of the bill that also would ban menthol-flavored cigarettes.
Armed with signs and water bottles — and with many wearing protective masks — most demonstrators wore T-shirts that read, “SB 793 is racist!”
The march was led by Neighborhood Forward’s Los Angeles chapter, a national advocacy group that focuses on amplifying vulnerable and marginalized groups through legislative action. Demonstrators constantly chanted, “SB 793 is a bad bill.”
The Rev. William D. Smart Jr. of Christ Liberation Ministries, who is also the head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the bill “criminalizes the sell of menthol” cigarettes.
SB 793 follows the Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement (STAKE) Act, a measure that ended the selling of tobacco products to people under the age of 21 years old and went into effect in 1995.
State Sen. Jerry Hill introduced SB 793 in the state Legislature at the beginning of the year, hoping to further the end of tobacco use in children.
“Big tobacco makes its money by exploiting the vulnerable: our children, our youth and our communities who are already burdened by grave health disparities,” Hill said in a media advisory. “Big tobacco is a deadly predator and it is time to end its abuse.”
The state Senate passed SB 793 in June and it is now being considered in the Assembly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most adult African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes, 93% saying they first started smoking with menthol cigarettes compared to 44% of whites.
“We’re not here as advocates of cigarette smoking,” Smart said. “We believe people shouldn’t smoke. We believe there should be educational programs, but at the same time [this bill is] racist” and discriminationatory.
The group cites the death of Eric Garner, a Black man killed by New York police officers after being placed in a chokehold during an attempted arrest in 2014 as a source objection to the bill. Garner was being arrested on charges of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, the entire incident filmed by a bystander.
Gio Galarza, executive director of I Love Homeless L.A., fears that SB 793 would encourage minorities to be faced with unnecessary confrontations with the police.
“[SB 793] has good [intentions] but it also has bad [intentions] because the bad [intentions are] that it would [discriminate] — it’s a sort of racism to give probable cause to law enforcement officers to arrest our community, our youth, our veterans,” Galarza said.
“Why would we want to create more crimes? Why would we want to criminalize our people and put them in jail when we could probably help them get a scholarship in school and go to school and be a normal human being to society versus oppressing them?” Galarza said.