His role unclear on panel biased toward tobacco interests
Last week Minnesota had an unlikely visitor at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in South Minneapolis: Rev Al Sharpton.
With very little press or other announcement of his presence, those who were informed may or may not have known what the purpose of Sharpton’s visit was. He has recently toured a few cities regarding the topic of “banning” menthol cigarettes and police harassment in the Black community. Sharpton previously visited Beebe Memorial Cathedral, a predominantly Black church in Oakland, California, in April 2016.
On Wednesday, January 25 at noon, a community leadership luncheon was hosted by Billy G. Russell, pastor of Greater Friendship Missionary Church, for a panel discussion analyzing the criminal justice system and the potential ban.
The panel included Major Neil Franklin, former director of Maryland State Police; former police chief and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) John I. Dixon III; and former congressman and Florida State Highway Patrol Officer Kendrick Meek.
“It was brought to us that there was some unintended exposure around the banning of the menthol cigarettes,” said Sharpton. “Be clear, I am not taking a position.”
Despite his not taking a position, however, previous press materials list the tour as being sponsored by the National Action Network, of which Sharpton is founder and president, and Reynolds American Incorporated (RAI), the makers of KOOL, Camel and Pall Mall cigarettes, all of which sell products that contain menthol.
From Sharpton’s standpoint, the banning of menthol cigarettes would further encourage the harassment of Black men by law enforcement. “The implications of when police get involved to enforce laws, it could lead to unintended consequences,” referring to the Eric Garner case in New York, who was killed by police for selling loose cigarettes.
“In Chicago a lot of the gunfire has been intended around the selling of loosies,” Sharpton said. “If we force a black market of menthol cigarettes, [it] will exacerbate that.”
According to a survey by the African American Leadership Forum, in coordination with Hennepin County Public Health, 84 percent of U.S.-born African American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and 61 percent agree that menthol cigarettes are marketed to African Americans more than to other racial groups.
“There is a criminalization that is happening, and it’s also a justice issue that has occurred in our community for decades, the systematic targeting of our communities with menthol and other flavored tobacco products,” said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of National African American Tobacco Prevention Network.
Jefferson also pointed out another key factor that need to be considered: “As far as arguments to ban menthols, are you talking about menthol in tobacco products period, or the sale of menthols, which would hold the retailers reliable?”
Dixon [fired as chief in June by the City of Petersburg, Virginia] offered statements similar to Sharpton’s: “We don’t need one more opportunity to lock up one more Black male. That’s one more opportunity for reasonable suspicion, one more reason to search you. That is a major concern. When you prohibit something, you make it more attractive.”
Franklin, who also worked in the undercover narcotics division in Baltimore, said through his own personal experience he had been contributing to the demise of the Black community. “It took me a long time to wake up,” said a teary-eyed Franklin. “It took me a long time to realize what I was doing, arresting so many people of color for possession.
“Here we were attempting to solve a public health [issue] with criminal justice solutions. Tobacco is a public health issue. The one system that has been most detrimental to the Black family is the criminal justice system.”
Gene Nichols, who represents the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), stated that what they are doing has nothing to do with “banning” menthols. Nichols said his mission at AALF is to educate Blacks of the harms and dangers of menthols and restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products to youth. “That is what we are being funded to do,” said Nichols. The project is supported by a Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) grant required by the Minnesota Legislature to address African American menthol tobacco use, according to a press release.
As a part of this mission, Nichols conducted a survey last summer in predominantly Black communities regarding the use of menthol cigarettes with the goal of educating the community, with plans to complete a follow-up survey to see the progression of awareness and display the predatory marketing practices in Black communities.
“Menthol-flavored cigarettes are a concern to us because they can mask the harshness of cigarette smoke and mislead people into thinking they are not as harmful,” said Nichols. “We’re very concerned about menthol making it easier for youth to start smoking, and harder for anyone to quit.”
Nichols’ study highlighted that smokers were attracted to menthol products because they taste and feel different than other types of cigarettes. Eighty-eight percent of all respondents said tobacco use remains a significant health issue in their community, and 69 percent agreed that menthol’s cooling sensation makes it easier for young people to start.
“We’ve gained valuable insight into the perceptions of menthol tobacco among the African American community,” said Nichols. “This effort lays the groundwork for what lies ahead. It will serve as a basis for community engagement and education in the second phase of the grant.”
With these aspects to consider, one is left with this question: Is this traveling panel an effort to actually protect Black communities against unfair law practices and the criminalization of yet one more substance, or is it an attempt to use that very same issue as a way to protect tobacco companies and their products marketed to Black Americans?
Ivan Phifer welcomes readers’ response to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ivan B. Phifer is contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com