Westchester County Executive George Latimer vetoed the Board of Legislators’ recently approved bill banning the sale of flavored tobacco products Tuesday morning and pledged to step up education and enforcement efforts to further curtail smoking.
While Latimer applauded the efforts of lawmakers to address the harmful effects of smoking and tobacco use, particularly on teens, he said concerns raised in the Black and Arab American and Middle Eastern communities as well as objections from various unions contributed to his hesitancy to sign the bill.
“None of these communities is monolithic in their opposition, but there exists a significant number of objections, having been raised, that cannot be brushed aside,” Latimer said. “The cultural objections raised must be forthrightly addressed, and where possible, remedied.”
Residents from a portion of the county’s communities of color, both at the public hearing for the bill and in other forums, argued that it would increase interactions with police and heighten the chances of unnecessary encounters with law enforcement with potentially deadly results. Among those who spoke was Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of police in Staten Island in 2014 for selling loose cigarettes.
About 80 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, which would have been banned under the legislation, a much higher percentage than their white counterparts.
Opponents of the legislation said investment in education and smoking cessation programs would be more valuable and equitable.
Furthermore, Latimer said Westchester County has the lowest percentage of adult smokers – 7 percent – of any county in the state, according to an August 2021 state Department of Health study.
The Board of Legislators approved the bill on Nov. 28 by an 11-6 vote. Unless one of the legislators in opposition has a change of heart, there would not be enough support to override a veto.
Before announcement of the veto, Latimer outlined a strategy that will make a $3 million investment in public education efforts to strengthen tobacco cessation and anti-addiction programs, including a grant program for community nonprofit organizations.
Another part of the county’s effort would be a campaign under the direction of Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins to find ways to stiffen enforcement to ensure that no one under 21 years old can buy tobacco products, Latimer said. A committee that includes law enforcement, legal authorities, businesses and representatives from youth organizations will be brought together to develop a plan to prevent tobacco products from being obtained by minors.
One of the main arguments from proponents of the measure was that banning the sale of flavored tobacco, such as candy and fruit-flavored products, smoking would be less enticing to teenagers.
While supporters of the bill, including its sponsor, Legislator Jewel Williams Johnson (D-Greenburgh), said that the county health department would enforce the law and not the police, Latimer said the law cannot predict every consequence.
“There are questions of enforcement that cannot be dictated by the provisions of this bill alone,” Latimer said. “Law enforcement entities are tasked by state law with enforcement of this and all statutes, which may come out of violations of this law that involve unlicensed cigarette selling. The intersection between making certain products illegal to sell at the same time we are allowing cannabis products to be legally sold, creates a societal concern that must be more fully researched and addressed.”
Later Tuesday, Johnson said she was discouraged by the veto. The $3 million investment in education and cessation programs is appreciated but it is a pittance compared to the billions that will lost because of smoking-related health issues.
It also hurts because a similar ban approved by the state of California’s was upheld by the Supreme Court Monday after it was challenged.
“My disappointment cannot be put into words,” Johnson said. “The county executive indicated the significant number of objections raised that cannot be brushed aside, and I counter with the tremendous advocacy in support of this ban that should not be discounted. Westchester County may have the lowest percentage of adult smokers in the State of New York, but this ban was meant for those disproportionately targeted by Big Tobacco.”
Kevin O’Flaherty, director of advocacy for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, also he was disappointed by the veto. Thousands of children today under 18 will die prematurely because they will become addicted to tobacco, including flavored products. It also will hurt Black communities, which are “relentlessly targeted” by the tobacco industry, he said.
“With this veto, County Executive Latimer missed a tremendous opportunity to take an important step towards protecting the health and safety of young people and communities of color in New York,” O’Flaherty said.
One organization that commended the decision to veto was the New York Association of Convenience Stores. Its representatives argued that the ban would have hurt hundreds of merchants and would have increased the black market for cigarettes, including those with menthol, exponentially.
Kent Sopris, president of the association, said education and enforcement is a far better alternative.
“Prohibition never works as public policy and this bill would have jeopardized small business owners without providing any substantive health benefit,” Sopris said.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/