How a New California Law, SB 793, Protects Black Lives
October 21, 2020
October 21, 2020
Many Californians, especially parents and teachers, are familiar with how tobacco flavors led to such widespread teen use that the US Surgeon General classified vaping as a youth epidemic.1 So it makes sense that California lawmakers would act on behalf of families and pass a law (SB 793) to end the sale of flavored tobacco in California. What people might not grasp about the law is that in addition to protecting kids, it’s specifically designed to protect Black lives.2 Here’s how.
BIG TOBACCO HAS PREYED ON THE BLACK COMMUNITY FOR DECADES
Early on, the tobacco industry specifically targeted people who are African American/Black.3,4,5 In fact, they managed to make their presence in African American/Black communities look like support.6 But the target shows up in the shameless ways the industry appropriates Black culture in magazine ads and store posters.7 Make no mistake. The tobacco industry’s presence is not support.
It’s a predatory business strategy that prioritizes profit8 over human life.9 That’s why predominantly Black neighborhoods feature higher volumes of menthol ads and lower menthol prices.10,11 It’s no wonder Black children are 3x likelier to recognize a Newport ad than other children.12 Nor is it fair.
WHY THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY CHOSE TO TARGET THE BLACK COMMUNITY
The high smoking rate of menthols is hard to ignore. Seventy percent of Black smokers use menthol.13 The tobacco industry’s history of predatory marketing is just part of it. Another part of the explanation is well-known: the numbing effect of menthol makes the cigarette easier to smoke. But that’s true for everyone. The factor that relates specifically to the Black community might surprise you.
Decades of tobacco industry documents reveal the industry was researching nicotine’s connection to melanin.14 Melanin is the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color. People with darker skin, hair, and eyes have more melanin. The tobacco industry’s documents speculated people with higher levels of melanin may be more likely to get addicted.15,16 More addiction of course leads to more cigarette purchases. Simply put: the tobacco industry makes more money when Black people smoke menthol.
INDUSTRY-CAUSED DEATH AND DISEASE IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY
Sadly, the hook works. Smoking is the number one killer of Black Americans, outpacing homicide, car accidents, drug abuse, and AIDS combined.17 In addition, Black people are more likely to suffer tobacco-related illnesses like cancers of the lung, esophagus, and larynx, plus heart and blood diseases.18 And due to the racial inequities of social benefits such as health insurance, childcare, paid time off, etc., Black people suffering from life-threatening diseases are often diagnosed at later stages and therefore face lower survival rates than white people.19
The emotional trauma when Black families lose a parent or grandparent cannot be overstated. But the practical economic hit impacts everything from food and housing security to health and social services.20 So the tobacco industry’s targeting of this population is more than just unethical. It’s racial discrimination.
HOW DOES SB 793 PROTECT BLACK LIVES?
SB 793 ends the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol. The new law will counteract the tobacco industry’s well-documented tactic of overstocking Black neighborhoods with the most starter-friendly cigarette.21 But there’s more to the law than the elimination of flavored products from stores. It also puts the burden of the law on sellers, not buyers. In other words, no person using or possessing flavored tobacco can be penalized. That might seem like legal mumbo jumbo, but in terms of racial justice, it’s huge. Enforcement of the law is between officers and tobacco retailers, leaving private citizens out of the equation, thereby avoiding potential for over-policing that has disproportionately affected the Black community. Hopefully, this law signals further social justice policies to come.
BIG TOBACCO’S ADDICTION THREATENS BLACK COMMUNITIES’ FREEDOMS
You may have already seen a flier on your doorknob or banners on the internet warning of threats to Black people’s freedom. The ads urge Californians to consider how this law prevents Black people from choosing their preferred cigarette. But can nicotine, a drug that locks people into what is often a lifetime addiction and health problems, really be considered a symbol of freedom? When a person becomes addicted, isn’t that the opposite of freedom? Freedom is especially called into question in the case of menthol cigarettes when the industry descended into Black communities, offering them free to 9-year-olds,22 discounted to adults, and then plastered stores with so much marketing that Black children were found to be three times likelier to recognize a Newport ad.23
The tobacco industry’s ads also make the argument that the stress of COVID-19 on the Black community makes it an inopportune time to infringe on rights. And it’s true; Black America has been harder hit by COVID-19.24 But that’s all the more reason to protect people from tobacco’s lung damage, as healthy lungs are more effective at fighting off the virus. Furthermore, the last thing the Black community needs amidst the devastating death caused by COVID-19 is devastating death caused by the tobacco industry.
THE FDA’S FATAL DECISION 10 YEARS AGO
The FDA had the chance in 2009 to stop the number one killer of Black lives when they enacted a ban on flavored cigarettes.25 Problem is, they gave menthol a pass. Despite the studies detailing the health improvements that would result from the elimination of menthol cigarettes,26 the FDA failed to withstand Big Tobacco lobbying efforts27 and menthol was left on the market. If the tobacco industry was truly supportive, they would’ve stepped aside and let the FDA act in the public health interest of the Black community. Instead, they fought hard to market and sell their product that disproportionately kills the people they claim to support.28 Had the federal flavor ban included menthol cigarettes in 2009, an estimated 237,000 Black deaths would have been prevented by 2050.29
What does it say when the tobacco industry leverages capital, culture, politics, research, chemistry, and marketing to addict a population of people best positioned to make them money, despite the carnage? It says that to them, Black lives don’t matter. In fact, their financial power relies on the viewpoint that Black lives are entirely expendable.
SB 793 does not infringe on the Black community’s rights. It protects them. The law will go into effect in January 2021 and move the wheels of racial health equity further down the road. To those in California’s Black community, the reality is clear: as long as there’s money to be made off addiction, this industry will not protect you. They’ll sacrifice you. And on the way to the bank, they will not look back.
Additional information on Big Tobacco’s menthol manipulation: