I grew up in Inglewood, California and as easily as I can recall the booming sounds of the Showtime Lakers heating things up at the Great Western Forum and the feeling of mist from the Pacific Coast Highway against my skin, I can also recall rich images of black people, in cool poses, laughing and living their best lives in cigarette advertisements.
These advertisements and related efforts to encourage members of the black community in particular, to smoke have stuck with me, like song lyrics I memorized as a child. They fuel efforts I lead to support the holistic health and wellness of the diverse black community.
What I know to be true is that smoking kills and that we need thoughtful and measured approaches to reducing opportunities for children and youth to access smoking products of all types. We also need to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking among adults who have or may make the choice to smoke. What I fear most are attempts to ban products that may in fact only drive both the products and especially children and youth, to the black market or otherwise negatively impact members of the Black community.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that would ban the sale of vapor products in physical retail stores and online to San Francisco residents. The National Black Justice Coalition supports the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation and is taking a stand against misguided regulation. The National Black Justice Coalition is most concerned about the impact this may have in the black community and ensuring the holistic health and wellness of the black community. The highest concern is that the proposed legislation goes too far and may have unintended consequences of driving black youth and adults to the black market.
There are several potential negative impacts this ban would have on the black community. First, a ban that removes all vapor products risks folks who have stopped smoking cigarettes reverting back. Simply put, prohibition does not work. Lawmakers have the responsibility to enforce reasonable expectations. With that, let’s do this responsibly, we should focus on regulation, responsible marketing and accountability for companies that violate policies.
The proposed ban also limits consumer choice. Adults should have the opportunity to make adult decisions while we continue to find ways to reduce the number of adults using both cigarettes and e-cigarette alternatives. Beyond restricting the rights of responsible adults making informed decisions, an unintended consequence includes increasing the use and purchase of cigarettes.
Last, and most importantly, banning vapor products will not solve the problem to reduce youth access. Data reveals 86 percent of children and youth are not purchasing e-cigarettes and products in the store. According to the Small Business Commission, “In 2017, 13.6 percent of high school students in San Francisco who reported to currently use electronic cigarettes indicated that they usually got them by buying them in a store.” The proposed ban may increase access and usage in the black market, which is outside of the reach of both observation and regulation.
Too often political decisions are made that have a disparate impact upon black and poor communities—decisions that restrict choices and attempt to legislate behavior. In our current geo-political environment, the political decisions made by elected leaders should be equitable. Their actions must account for the unique needs of communities most impacted by policy decisions who are furthest removed from the decision making processes, and also reduce unintended consequences. It is our hope that the great state of California and the leadership in San Francisco more specifically, honors the members of the community by taking measured steps to address the disproportionate impact that smoking continues to have in the black community.
David J. Johns is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s only civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. Mr. Johns is the former executive director of the White House Initiative on African American Excellence, and a native Californian.