By Faith Petrie, Contributing Writer
LOS ANGELES — A group of Black clergy members has come out in opposition to a bill approved by the state Assembly Aug. 24 that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in California.
The Assembly approved SB 793 on a 50-0 vote. The bill now returns to the Senate for approval of amendments added by the Assembly. The Senate approved an earlier version of the bill in June.
Opponents of the bill say it will directly impact and discriminate against people of color who smoke and use menthol cigarettes.
They held a press conference Aug. 24 at City of Refuge Church in Gardena where they evoked the name of Eric Garner in their oposition to the bill. Garner was a Black man who died after being placed in a chokehold by New York police for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in 2014.
His mother, Gwendolyn Carr, was featured in a YouTube video criticizing the impact the bill could have on the Black community.
“A new law would criminalize menthol cigarettes, which Black people smoke almost exclusively, giving police officers another excuse to harm and arrest any Black man, woman or child they choose,” Carr said. “A bad law has consequences for mothers like me.”
SB 793 was introduced by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, in an effort to halt tobacco use in children.
Advocacy group Neighborhood Forward has opposed the bill, with members of the group arguing that the bill would criminalize menthol cigarettes, affecting Black and Latino smokers.
During a rally against the bill Aug. 20 in downtown Los Angeles, Rev. William D. Smart Jr. of Christ Liberation Ministries, who is also the head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told the Los Angeles Wave that his objection to SB 793 wasn’t an endorsement of smoking but instead, a criticism of potential discrimination as a result of its passing.
“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 discriminatory.”
In 2014-2015, 76.8% of non-Hispanic Black adults who smoked reported that they usually used menthol cigarettes compared to 24.6% of white adults, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported.
Neighborhood Forward has been pushing for a meeting with both Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to voice concerns over the impact SB 793 would have on the Black community.
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.
The bill’s author, Hill, said “big tobacco makes its money by exploiting the vulnerable: our children, our youth and our communities who are already burdened by grave health disparities. Big Tobacco is a deadly predator and it is time to end its abuse.”
After his bill was passed by the Assembly, Hill said the legislators “stood strong to protect our youth and our communities from Big Tobacco.”
Critics of the bill said hookah was originally exempt from the flavored tobacco ban and the Assembly amended the bill to spare pipe tobacco and cigars worth $12 or more from the ban.
The CDC reported that in the United States, cigarette smoking causes 480,000 deaths per year and 41,000 deaths due to second-hand smoke exposure.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, pointed fingers at tobacco companies for “predatory marketing.”
“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,” Bass said in a recent op-ed column for the Sacramento Bee. ”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?”