Though supporters of the ban say it is an important step towards reducing disease inequities in the United States, the step has, to some degree, divided Black communities. The Rev. Al Sharpton has sharply criticized it, and recently secured a meeting with White House officials along with King & Spalding, a lobbying firm with an extensive record of advocating for RAI Services Company, the cigarette maker formerly known as RJ Reynolds.
Mr. Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, wrote a letter to Susan Rice, the Domestic Policy Council director, saying the ban would lead Black smokers to tamper with cigarettes or use unregulated herbal menthol varieties, which would “promote criminal activity.” Mr. Sharpton has acknowledged that Reynolds has supported his organization for two decades but would not say how much it contributed.
Reynolds is one of the world’s largest cigarette companies and maker of Newport menthol cigarettes, which it calls “America’s No. 1-selling menthol cigarette brand. ”
Reynolds raised similar concerns in a letter to White House officials, suggesting the FDA extend the timeline on a ban to ensure local enforcement does not roll out “in a way that creates negative effects, such as disparate impacts on communities of color.”
“A menthol ban would impose serious risks,” Mr. Sharpton wrote, “including increasing the illegal sale of smuggled, black market menthol cigarettes as well as the street sales of individual menthol cigarettes – ‘loosies’ and in turn place menthol smokers at a significant risk of entering the criminal justice system.”
Carol McGruder, co-founder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said it was “shameful” that Mr. Sharpton and others take tobacco funding. She said that the need for police reform is real but that the lives taken early by menthol tobacco are far greater in number.
“To cynically use our pain, to say, ‘Oh, we want to protect you from that by leaving these products on the market that are killing you’ is crazy,” Ms. McGruder said.