Up in Smoke: Black Activists Slam Kathy Hochul for Proposed Menthol Cigarette Ban

'You are going to be the person that took Newport cigarettes from black people. You would never get reelected again.'

N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul (Getty Images)
February 7, 2023

Black activists are slamming New York governor Kathy Hochul (D.) for moving to ban flavored tobacco products while allowing rampant access to flavored marijuana.

"You’re telling me that my 21-year-old son can buy all the cannabis he wants, but my grandmother who’s been smoking for 65 years can’t get a cigarette? It doesn’t make sense," said Corey Pegues, a retired black New York Police Department executive who is urging lawmakers to reject Hochul’s proposal.

Pegues said the governor’s proposed legislation, which was tucked in her Jan. 10 State of the State plan, will disproportionately affect black voters. Critics say the proposal came as a shock to outside experts who would have warned about the policy’s racial bias.

Hochul is the latest Democrat to anger black activists with a flavored tobacco ban. Eighty-five percent of black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared with just 30 percent of white smokers, according to the CDC. Experts warned that the Biden administration’s 2022 proposal to ban flavored tobacco products would be a boon for criminal cartels who would become the only source for menthol smokers to get their fix. Critics of Hochul’s proposal echoed those claims, noting that increased crime in black neighborhoods could further exacerbate tension with the police.

Activists told the Washington Free Beacon that if Hochul gets her way, she will risk losing political support from their community, a critical voting bloc that helped her win her first full term in 2022.

"Hochul didn't run on this. She would have been defeated. Black people wouldn’t have voted for her," Pegues said. "Whoever passes this ban is going to be the boogeyman. Think about this. You are going to be the person that took Newport cigarettes from black people. You would never get reelected again, I promise you."

Wayne Harris, chairman of the board of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, said Hochul is "specifically targeting people of color" with her proposed ban. Hochul said her policy, if approved by the New York State Legislature, would prevent 22,000 youths from becoming adult smokers.

But Harris noted that flavored cigarettes are no more addictive than their natural counterparts and questioned why the governor has no apparent interest in banning tobacco products preferred by white people. Harris also pointed out that youth smoking rates have decreased substantially in recent decades.

"Our youth are much more likely to be smoking marijuana than they are to be smoking cigarettes," Harris said.

Hochul's office defended the governor's efforts to "prevent senseless deaths" but did not offer a response to the concerns expressed by the black activists.

"With commercial tobacco use the leading cause of preventable deaths, Governor Hochul is leading the way to a tobacco-free generation to reduce youth smoking and prevent senseless deaths," Hochul press secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays told the Free Beacon. "As with any budget proposal, we will work with the legislature on the final details for the best way to protect public health."

New Yorkers will have no problem getting their hands on flavored marijuana products. A nonprofit weed dispensary operating in Manhattan is legally marketing flavored THC products with names such as "Tropical Runtz," "Pink Grapefruit," and "Cereal Milk," the New York Post reported.

Jiles Ship, a former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said New Yorkers will turn to the black market to get their menthol fix if Hochul’s proposed ban becomes law.

"They’ll go to other states and get them," Ship said. "They’ll bring them back to New York and then try to sell them on the black market, which is going to create another crime problem in the communities because now people will be having turf wars, and a multitude of illicit activities will transpire."

Even Hochul’s fellow Democrats have come out against the proposed ban. Assemblyman Nader Sayegh, a Democrat representing Yonkers, called it a "harsh" and "unjust" piece of legislation.

"It’s not equitable to say: ‘Stop smoking hookah but you can go smoke pot,’" he told the New York Post.

A source with knowledge of the inner workings of Hochul’s office told the Free Beacon that the proposal was the brainchild of her policy director Micah Lasher. Seen as a political "wunderkind" in New York Democratic circles, Lasher rose to prominence in 2001 for producing a racist flier showing then-Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer kissing Rev. Al Sharpton’s rear end. Sharpton never forgave Lasher for the flier, saying as recently as December 2020 that the operative was a "bigoted strategist."

Lasher also shares extensive ties with billionaire Democrat Michael Bloomberg, whose eponymous charity Bloomberg Philanthropies has doled out $1.58 billion since 2005 on anti-tobacco initiatives. A founding partner of the storied Democratic consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, Lasher helped manage Bloomberg’s New York City mayoral campaigns in the early 2000s. Lasher led Bloomberg’s legislative agenda from 2010-2013, including the mayor’s infamous effort to ban soda sales in the Big Apple.