BY MICHAEL STEELE, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR, THE HILL — 09/22/19 08:00 AM EDT
Throughout my career in politics, especially as Lt. Gov. of Maryland, health care has been of considerable importance to me, especially the health-care challenges facing minority communities. We have seen a lot of progress, but there are major disparities still outstanding.
One of the most frustrating is also the most preventable: the youth smoking and vaping epidemics. With new reported illnesses and deaths flashing across headlines almost every day, it’s time we get smart and act.
While I have been a critic of President Trump from time to time, I do recognize when he has his finger on the right pulse and applaud his leadership accordingly. He upped the ante this past week, when he proposed a nationwide ban on all flavors of e-cigarettes, which are disproportionately to blame for getting our children hooked on nicotine.
While the president’s plan reflects the aggressive action needed to begin to stem this tide, I also want to encourage the president to meet with and include in this discussion minority health organizations who focus on disparities. Moreover, we need to take it a step further and ban menthol cigarettes, which have been poisoning and targeting African Americans and America’s youth for far too long.
Little noticed in our focus on vaping and other forms of e-cigarettes is how menthol cigarettes are even more destructive than e-vapor products, so it’s about time they became a serious part of our country’s conversation.
Smoking is responsible for nearly half a million preventable deaths in the United States each year, and clearly menthol cigarettes share a great deal of the blame. Menthol is a flavor, and thus is more accessible and attractive to kids. If the health of our young people is the goal, this is an obvious solution.
This is especially important given the devastating effects menthol cigarettes have had on minority populations, specifically African Americans.
Minorities in America are twice as likely to fall below the federal poverty line, and big tobacco has been shamefully preying on these populations for decades. Minorities and low-income households have historically been hit the hardest by the deadly effects of menthol cigarettes.
According statistics, nearly 9 in 10 African-American smokers over 12 years old choose menthol cigarettes. What’s the most disturbing part is that number is not a coincidence — not only is menthol more appealing because of its smoother and cooler effect, but the tobacco industry has a long history of marketing menthol brands to racial and ethnic minorities and youth, and particularly African American women.
The tobacco industry is smart — they know how to hook customers for a lifetime, and they have been ruthlessly targeting vulnerable populations without any care of the damage their products do to them. Which is why African Americans and Hispanic menthol smokers are less likely to successfully quit smoking.
Though more important than ever, our population’s fight on menthol is not new. Last year, the FDA proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, but somehow this got lost in the flurry of conversation and fell through the cracks.
After the announcement, the NAACP released a statement in support of the ban, saying the proposed measure was “long overdue to protect the health of African Americans and to reduce the deleterious impact of menthol smoking and tobacco use overall on America’s health.” And I couldn’t agree more.
The fight against tobacco products has been a game of hot potato for both political parties, with Republicans and Democrats talking loud and doing nothing. Right and left, tobacco and menthol products are needlessly claiming victims to cancer and strokes — two of the three leading causes of death among African Americans.
With menthol cigarettes being the preferred cigarette of choice among this population, there is a clear link that is impossible to ignore, and a ban on them will undoubtably improve and begin to save the lives of African Americans across the country.
I understand and commend the good intentions of the Administration by imposing a ban on e-cigarette flavors to protect America’s youth. The flavor ban is no doubt a step in the right direction; but it is only that — a step, as menthol cigarettes are just as much to blame for causing youth nicotine addiction, and are much more deadly as well.
Certainly, I appreciate the steps the president has taken to tackle the e-cigarette epidemic — which impact has become devastatingly clear. However, there is more work to do. Menthol cigarettes have been killing Americans too; and I encourage President Trump to put a stop to it by including menthol cigarettes in his ban and end this health crisis for good.
Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He is also an MSNBC political analyst.
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL