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Westchester Approves Flavored Tobacco Ban; Latimer Undecided

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The Westchester County Board of Legislators approved a controversial ban last week on the sale of flavored tobacco products but it is unclear whether County Executive George Latimer will sign the legislation into law.

By an 11-6 vote, lawmakers passed the measure that would ban the sale of all menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, which drew the ire of some members of the Black community who argued that it would lead to additional stop-and-frisk incidents with police.

More than 80 percent of Black people who smoke use menthol cigarettes, among the products barred from sale in Westchester.

Others contended that it would hurt convenience store owners and other businesses at a time when they were recovering from the pandemic as well as a difficult economy.

Legislator Jewel Williams Johnson (D-Greenburgh), who introduced the legislation earlier this year, said flavored cigarettes entice teens to become addicted to smoking, costing New York State more than $17 billion a year in health care expenses.

Johnson said that the law wouldn’t trigger interactions with the police in communities of color because the Health Department will be enforcing the law. Furthermore, violations would only carry civil penalties for the establishments found to be selling the products. It does not prohibit the purchase, use or possession of flavored tobacco, she said.

It will also keep all communities healthier, particularly youngsters, Johnson said. States and municipalities that have enacted previously enacted a similar law, such as Massachusetts and California, reported their use diminishes when flavored tobacco sales are discontinued.

“The lives of our children and families are worth so much more than the millions of dollars manufacturers will make from very intentional, long-term destruction of our communities,” Johnson said. “This is a proactive step for public health in Westchester County.”

But Legislator Tyrae Woodson-Samuels (D-Mount Vernon) said his constituents have valid reasons to fear that the law would work as intended. Instead, he called on for more investment in cessation programs and to improve access to health care.

Furthermore, if officials are concerned about protecting teens, then there should be greater enforcement of the current law, which prohibits anyone under 21 to purchase tobacco products, Woodson-Samuels said. It would be likely that sales would increase on the black market to fill the void, he said.

“Why not just enforce the laws on the books?” Woodson-Samuels said. “I think that’s pretty clear what has to happen here.”

The vote followed a public hearing on Nov. 14 where more than 60 speakers spoke on the issue. Close to two-thirds of the speakers supported the law.

Last Friday, Latimer told The Examiner that he and his team were analyzing the pros and cons of the bill, but did not tip his hand on whether he would support it. The measure landed on his desk last Thursday, three days after the vote. If he were to veto it, 12 votes would be needed for an override.

As a legislator, Latimer said he supported measures such as raising the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 and banning smoking in restaurants. However, in addition to health concerns, he said he wants to look at potential impacts on business, communities of color and those areas of the country that have passed similar laws.

“My record of pushing back on tobacco is pretty strong,” Latimer said. “But this bill covers more than just candy-flavored cigarettes. It goes into cigars and pipes and other things. So we really want to go through it in detail. We want to look at all the public testimony that’s been given to the legislature.”

The issue drew a wide range of opinions. Dr. Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP and a former president of the organization, co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Amsterdam News on Nov. 24 that strongly backed the law. Dukes argued that there would be no criminal enforcement; meanwhile, tobacco companies have been racially targeting the Black community to start smoking through enticing ads, she wrote.

But Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, spoke during the hearing of the dangers of passing the law. Garner was killed in an interaction with police in Staten Island in 2014 after selling loose cigarettes. She warned that could happen again and urged lawmakers to ban all cigarettes if they are health conscious.



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