An Interview: Flavored Tobacco Ban Legislation with County Legislator Jewel Williams Johnson
With the passing of the flavored tobacco ban legislation by the Westchester County Board of Legislators on Monday, November 28th, The Westchester County Press thought it important to sit down and interview the primary sponsor of the legislation who is also the Chair of the Board of Legislators’ Committee on Health.
Blackwell: Tell us exactly who this legislation affects.
Williams Johnson: The legislation is specific to retail stores who sell and store flavored tobacco products in Westchester County. It’s important to note according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health the number of tobacco retailers and convenience store locations actually increased in the year after their total ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products went into effect.
Blackwell: What products are included in the legislation?
Williams Johnson: The ban covers any flavored product containing, made, or derived from tobacco or nicotine that is intended for human consumption.
Blackwell: Where are similar bans?
Williams Johnson: Westchester County is following the trend. There were many municipalities in the state of California who had similar bans before passage of their statewide ban on election day last month. I’ve already mentioned Massachusetts. There’s Canada and Washington DC and in the state of Maine there’s Bangor, Brunswick and Portland. Here in New York there’s the Town of Manheim northwest of us in Herkimer County as well as New York City with exceptions. I’d also like to highlight drug stores stopped selling cigarettes, CVS was first to do so in 2014, all other drug stores in New York State stopped earlier this year. Even an executive from Chestnut Markets, with many petroleum-convenience stores in our area, acknowledged the inevitable trend away from dependence on gasoline and tobacco products in a profile article on the retail-merchandiser.com site, but interestingly, it was taken down after all the publicity about this legislation.
Blackwell: When will the ban take effect?
Williams Johnson: Six months from once the passed legislation is either signed or time elapses into law, hoping it won’t be vetoed. Store owners will have time to acclimate and add healthier options and cessation products to their shelves. Rather than oppose this legislation I would think store owners would support it. The health of their customers won’t be at the same risk and they should want to maintain customers having a longer lifespan to buy more merchandise for a longer period of time. Plus, the six months will give our Department of Health the time to execute plans and roll out cessation services/programs.
Blackwell: What some are questioning and need to understand... why a ban and does a ban make good economic sense?
Williams Johnson: Let me be perfectly clear, it’s the science, the research and the stats that are most telling. Tobacco products are the deadliest consumer products in the history of the world, killing roughly 480,000 people in our country each year and 45,000 African Americans die in the U.S. from smoke-caused illness each year and roughly 28.5K New Yorkers die from either first or second-degree smoking. In 2019, an estimated 4.31 million middle and high school students in the U.S. used a flavored tobacco product in the past 30 days. According to a CDC report in 2021, 8 in 10 youth who reported using tobacco products used flavored varieties. Flavored tobacco products have been targeted towards youth with the intent of making them lifelong smokers; almost all new tobacco users begin their addiction as kids. According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, kids who are interested in smoking pick-up vaping, become horribly addicted and are much more likely to move on to combustibles or dual use. According to the Rutgers School of Public Health flavored tobacco products are carefully crafted and marketed to lure young people to experiment during the phase in their lives when they are neurologically, and in terms of maturity, most vulnerable to addiction. By masking the harshness and soothing the irritation caused by tobacco smoke, flavors make it easier for beginners – primarily kids – to try the product and ultimately become addicted. The data shows flavored laws reduce tobacco use and experimentation – especially among youth.
Plus, we cannot forget how Big Tobacco companies specifically exploited minority communities for decades while lining their pockets. They’ve known nicotine binds to melanin, the pigment that makes skin dark, thereby making it more addictive and harder to quit for our people and has been their intended consequence.
As to the economics, it’s estimated we will have a 1% loss in sales taxes here in Westchester County. Keep in mind our annual County budget hovers around $2.2 billion. This is all juxtaposed against the $17.72 billion loss in our state in tobacco health related illness expenses and workforce productivity.
I must also point out the illicit market did not explode in Massachusetts and this is comparable as their excise tax on cigarettes is just slightly lower ($3.51 per pack of 20 cigarettes) than New York’s ($4.35 per package of 20 cigarettes).
Everyone should also be aware internet purchases of cigarettes cannot be delivered to residential addresses in our state.
Blackwell: Let’s discuss how we came to this point.
Williams Johnson: Our Board of Legislators’ Committee on Health held five public committee meetings on this subject alone and trust me, my committee has an extensive list of important committee meeting subjects (all always available for viewing anytime on our website, www.westchesterlegislators.com). There was a very well attended public hearing on November 14th in the Board of Legislators’ chamber and more people offered statements during our public comment period at our board meeting on November 28th. There have been numerous articles and opinion pieces published in this very reputable publication, as well as The Journal News, The Amsterdam News and Black Westchester. We also can’t forget all the televised media attention, particularly the coverage of several rallies and press conferences. Also, the American Heart Association held a community viewing of the film ‘Black Lives, Black Lungs’ followed by a panel discussion and Q&A at the Mount Vernon Library on Nov. 10th.
I also must indicate how thankful I am for all the advocates, particularly our youth and all the supporters. We are extremely grateful to have the support of the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, POW’R Against Tobacco, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) and Dr. Hazel Dukes, Memorial Sloan Kettering and White Plains Hospital and many, many more.
Blackwell: Any final thoughts?
Williams Johnson: First I need to emphasize the enforcement will be carried out solely by our Department of Health Inspectors who will inspect stores and issue fines. This is not a criminal offense and will NOT target individuals for possessing nor smoking flavored tobacco products.
While the phrase “unintended consequences” has been commonly referenced, I think it wiser for everyone to remain mindful of the facts and the decades-long, very intended consequences of Big Tobacco, including their precision, target marketing and exploitation of people of color. This is the fact that should sear our minds, make us boiling mad and commit smokers to becoming former tobacco users with the help of services the County will provide. Opposing this legislation and becoming more dug in… it reminds me of the British. There’s evidence in the 1700s, in the same century kidnapped and enslaved African people were forced to work on tobacco plantations, the British provided smallpox contaminated blankets to our Native American ancestors to provide warmth, but their plot was really to reduce and extirpate the race. The Native Americans were unknowing and thought the contaminated blankets were gifts, but they were actually a form of biological warfare, the blankets infected and killed them. They had the excuse of not knowing, but we know better. Let the contamination, in this case, the addiction, not continue to be our own demise.
At the time of this interview and print deadline the legislation awaits either signing by the Westchester County Executive, or letting the legislation time lapse (10 days after submission) into enactment or a veto.