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Guest Opinion: Why yes on Prop E benefits LGBTs

by Naphtali Offen

A yes vote on Proposition E would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy Vape magazine
A yes vote on Proposition E would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy Vape magazine  

In April 2017, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate the sale of menthol and other flavor additives in all nicotine products sold in the city. The legislation was instigated by African-American advocates fighting to protect their community and others from tobacco industry predation. Back in the 1960s, the industry distributed free menthol cigarettes in African-American neighborhoods around the country, creating a market and making menthol a badge of identity for African-Americans. Among African-American smokers, 80 percent smoke menthol. Menthol makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The industry knows this. LGBT smokers are also more likely to use menthol.

Before the legislation could take effect, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company spent nearly a million dollars gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to overturn this life-saving measure. Any time the industry reacts so strongly, we know we're on to something and it's scared. It should be. Menthol and other flavors are the hooks that make it easier to seduce a new generation of smokers.

As always, the industry is arguing for free choice. But when other substances have been proved harmful or problematic, such as DDT, lead paint, or asbestos, they have been pulled from the market. One no longer has the choice to purchase them. Menthol and other flavors increase the likelihood of becoming a smoker, getting addicted, and losing a decade or more of life before a painful death. And, no surprise, addiction is the antithesis of free choice.

What about the industry's choice to market a product that will kill 50 percent of its longtime users? Back in the 1970s, tobacco industry executives said they would stop selling cigarettes if they believed it caused cancer. They now acknowledge the link to cancer. They're still selling cigarettes.

Since the Food and Drug Administration was granted oversight for tobacco in 2009, its scientific advisory committee has concluded that removing menthol would benefit public health, but the FDA has failed to do so because of political pressure from the industry. That is why local jurisdictions are acting.

The industry's campaign is deceptive and offensive. It mocks the Board of Supervisors for not being able to solve "real" problems, and taking on this issue instead. This is a long-standing tactic of the industry, minimizing the harms of smoking by drawing attention to other important issues.

It claims that "we all want to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids." Not so, it doesn't. It knows that 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit before the age of 18. How else is the industry going to get its replacement smokers? It claims it's upset that eliminating flavors from e-cigarettes will discourage adult smokers trying to transition to the "less harmful alternative." But the thousands of different flavored e-cigarettes are geared toward middle and high school kids, a true gateway drug. Kids who vape are more likely to graduate to cigarettes within a few years than those that don't.

Ignoring the fact that this issue was instigated by African-American leaders, RJ Reynolds is accusing proponents of racism, when it is quite the reverse. It says, "Elected officials are intentionally targeting and banning the tobacco products preferred by minority communities." It ignores the disproportionate suffering and death at its hands in these communities.

In an earlier campaign in the 1990s pitting the tobacco industry against public health, the industry asked on a billboard at 16th and Market streets, "What will the regulators regulate next?" Once again, it is attempting to exploit our community's embrace of freedom of choice by conflating it with having access to a harmful substance (that it's selling!)

And don't forget: This is the same RJ Reynolds that devised Project SCUM back in the 1990s, the marketing scheme to pitch cigarettes to gay men in the Castro and homeless men in the Tenderloin. Now they want your vote.

Don't be fooled. This is all about Big Tobacco's profits verses public health. It knows if San Francisco successfully challenges one of the industry's major methods of hooking a new generation, it could spread nationwide.

Please vote yes on E.

Naphtali Offen is a longtime community activist and co-founder and president of CLASH, the Coalition of Lavender-Americans on Smoking or Health.

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