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Rachel Talbot Ross is the assistant majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives and represents part of Portland in House District 40.
The combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the epidemic of systemic racism on our health, our economy and our humanity have felt relentless, and often overwhelming. Nevertheless, I have found hope in many unexpected places, including working with my colleagues in the Maine Legislature to assess and dismantle some of the most egregious systems that have perpetuated health disparities and generational poverty.
In this process of unravelling these long-held, harmful policies and practices, it can be challenging to find the common threads — the starting knots, purposeful or otherwise, that have created a tangle of inequities — by income, by race, by hometown, by gender and by many other social and cultural factors. Tobacco policy is one of those common threads.
It would be difficult to name another widely available commercial product that has caused more deadly harm to Black Americans than menthol cigarettes. For decades, the tobacco industry has been marketing menthol cigarettes systematically and relentlessly to Black Americans, particularly youth and young adults, with sponsorships of community and music events, free sampling and cheaper pricing in Black communities.
In the 1950s, less than 10 percent of Black adults who smoked used menthol cigarettes. Today, after decades of predatory targeting by the tobacco industry, that number is 85 percent. This is absolutely no coincidence.
Tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives every year. Black Americans die at rates higher than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. from diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the Black community.
And now, Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that smoking increases the risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Smoking is also a major cause of underlying conditions like heart disease and diabetes that disproportionately impact Black Americans and make them more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, when it comes to justice and fairness, strong tobacco control policies are essential to unraveling the disparities that are created and perpetuated by the tobacco industry. This legislative session, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to end the sale of all flavored tobacco products in Maine. In doing so, we will be coming together to say enough is enough to menthol tobacco products taking Black lives. That day is long overdue.
As the time to vote on this transformational legislation draws near, the tobacco industry will say and do almost anything to keep selling their menthol products, which are so essential to their success in attracting and addicting a new generation of tobacco users. They are ruthless and without shame, often bringing their arguments full circle to feign deep care and concern for the very communities they have targeted.
In recent weeks, the tobacco industry has painted a grim picture of criminal gangs, operating illegal markets for menthol cigarettes in towns large and small across Maine. At the same time, they claim that a ban on flavored tobacco products would put Black people at heightened risk of being targeted and unfairly attacked by the police for appearing to possess menthol cigarettes.
The fact is, Maine law does not criminalize the possession or use of tobacco products. The same would be true for any future federal (FDA) regulation of menthol cigarettes. So, no matter how you hear this convoluted story of gangs and police violence, the tobacco industry is stoking fear and casting doubt in order to shift the narrative from their purposeful predation of young people, particularly our Black and brown children.
Ending the sale of menthol cigarettes is critical in addressing racial health disparities. This policy is about giving the next generation of Maine kids — all Maine kids — the opportunity for good health and a productive future, free from nicotine addiction.
To achieve true health equity and advance racial justice, we cannot avoid confronting the tobacco industry and reforming our tobacco policies. We can start by ending the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products in Maine.