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Baltimore pastor: Bill to ban menthol sets up Black Marylanders for more interactions with police | COMMENTARY

As a leader in the Baltimore faith community, it is my responsibility to review pending legislation that has the potential of adversely affecting citizens in my community. For too long, leaders have enacted laws and public policy without due consideration of impacts on our communities.

The dichotomy between the intent and the effect of such laws is not lost on me. For decades, communities of color have suffered at the hands of a legal system that thrives on over-policing and imperils the future of our families. Even the most well-intentioned reforms have filled our prisons with fathers, mothers and children of color. Without the full consultation of the Black and brown community, this unfortunate history will be perpetuated further.

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We must work together to prevent such legislation, proposals or any form of policy that is both shortsighted and ultimately injurious to our communities.

That opportunity lies before us today. The Maryland General Assembly is debating House Bill 134, a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products. According to academic studies, such legislation would inhibit purchases of menthol cigarettes, chosen by over 80% of Black adults who choose to smoke.

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Let me be clear, I am opposed to smoking of any kind, especially among teenagers. However, prohibition against menthol cigarettes will not transform public health in Maryland, and it deviates from the core issues our communities are facing at this very moment. Instead, what this bill does is unnecessarily increase the frequency of dangerous interaction between Black people and law enforcement.

By criminalizing a product preferred by mostly Black smokers, the General Assembly is opening the doors to unwarranted obstacles in our communities. Law enforcement will be given a new license to arbitrarily stop-and-frisk cigarette smokers they encounter. What’s more, any arrests made through this ban might preclude people from getting a job and living a productive life.

It is no secret, Black and brown people with criminal records are stigmatized in a way that prevents them from enjoying the basic rights and privileges we often take for granted. Among them are job opportunities and long-term employment. In mid-2020, the Economic Policy Institute reported that the Black unemployment rate was nearly twice that of the overall unemployment rate in Maryland. The disparity in these figures has remained consistent throughout the pandemic, which shows no sign of slowing down. By picking and choosing which cigarette products to ban, we are doing more harm than good and widening the disparity we are working to eliminate.

If you do not intend on banning all cigarettes, what are we hoping to achieve? The legislation in question distinguishes between the sale and possession of flavored tobacco products. In underground black markets, however, that line is gray. This same gray area has enabled police departments around the country to violate our civil rights without real repercussion.

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If the General Assembly decides to take up this bill for further action, there will be many more Eric Garners — an African American man who was killed by the police for selling loose cigarettes. Is that really what we want?

In short, we’re living through a global health crisis that has affected every strata of Baltimore. Businesses are shuttered and local unemployment is too high. In this critical time, we must reevaluate our priorities and ask ourselves how we can do the most good. We need to marshal all of our resources to answering these questions, not toward a misguided plan to fight adolescent cigarette use.

Again, I cannot underscore enough that smoking is bad; but the future created by this legislation will have an irreversible impact on our communities.

This legislation is not in the best interest of my church, my community, nor Maryland at-large. We have some real problems in Baltimore. They must be addressed, not swept to the side by a ban that will end up as another chapter in a long history of discrimination.

Now is the time to invest in education and awareness. By deliberately informing young people about the consequences of smoking, we can boost public health while avoiding opening the Pandora’s box of House Bill 134.

J.L. Carter (pastor@arkchurch.com) is pastor of the Ark Church in Baltimore and president of the Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity.

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