In one of my first memories of my grandfather, he is smoking. He was always smoking. Unfortunately, like a lot of chronic smokers, it killed him.
This past weekend, on Father’s Day, many of us remembered a father or a grandfather whose life was cut short by smoking. But we can also do something about our sons and daughters who have yet to take their first drag. In fact, we must: after years of progress reducing youth smoking, today we are at risk of losing ground in New York—and it is our black and Latino youth who are most vulnerable.
Growing up as both Dominican and Puerto Rican, I saw the addictive and deadly powers of tobacco every day. I still do. The children in our communities are targeted at a young age with pervasive, insidious advertising, and then aggressively sold the tobacco products that will very possibly kill them.
The marketing is as evil as it is effective. How do the cigarette companies do this? Flavored tobacco. That’s why we must significantly restrict these youth-targeted products once and for all in New York.
More than 80 percent of kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product, which are easier to smoke and seem less dangerous than regular cigarettes, but have all the same carcinogens. That’s why Congress banned the sale of most flavored cigarettes a decade ago and the City Council prohibited the sale of many flavored tobacco products. But the most common flavor, menthol, was exempted.
Mentholated tobacco is a diabolical product. The cool taste tricks smokers into inhaling more deeply, allowing harmful particles to settle lower in their lungs. Menthol smokers also become more addicted; they have a lower rate of quitting. Sadly, but not surprisingly, more than half of youth smokers use menthol cigarettes.
My grandfather was a menthol smoker—as are many people of color. Eighty-five percent of Black adult smokers and 64 percent of Latinos who smoke buy menthols. This is not a coincidence. Studies show that tobacco companies undertake predatory tactics to hook blacks and Latinos on menthol. The result has been extreme racial inequities in health outcomes, leading to far higher rates of tobacco-related disease among people of color.
In addition to the menthol loophole, we also now have a new front in the war against flavored tobacco: e-cigarettes. It seems I can’t walk by a bodega in my Council district without seeing an advertisement for the fun-sounding “flavor packs” that can be loaded into vaping devices. They come in a kaleidoscope of candy- and fruit-flavored offerings like “gummy bear” and “banana smash”. (“Mint” and “wintergreen” are the new menthol.) There are now more than 15,000 of these e-cigarette flavors. They’re legal in New York.
I ask you: who do you think these e-cigarette flavors are targeted at. Adults? Of course not. It’s just a new way they’re coming for our kids.
It’s working. For years, youth smoking has been on the decline. But between 2017 and 2018, e-cigarette use among high school students increased 78 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
New York is under siege by this new tobacco trend. Vaping companies like JUUL, NJOY, and LOGIC have spread like wildfire through low-income communities of color like mine. One-out-of-six city high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the last month, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
There is a simple solution to this problem. We must finish the work that Congress started 10 years ago and bring our local laws up to date with the times. To do that, my colleagues and I in the City Council have introduced two bills that would significantly restrict menthol and flavored e-cigarettes in New York. They should be passed immediately.
Every year, thousands of New Yorkers die from smoking-related illnesses. More than half of them were hooked by a flavored tobacco product, including my grandfather. In honor of all those families who hope to keep their fathers, grandfathers, brothers and, most importantly, children as healthy as possible – for as long as possible – let’s not go another Father’s Day without restricting the sale of all flavored tobacco in our city.
Council Member Fernando Cabrera represents Council District 14 in the Bronx. If you or a loved one wants to quit smoking, call the New York Smokers Quitline at 1 866 NY QUITS (1-866-697-8487).