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Racism & Injustice

We need tobacco laws that protect – not harm – communities of color

Published Dec 12, 2022
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Racial injustice in tobacco laws

For years, many lawmakers have passed ineffective policies that penalize people who purchased, used, or possessed tobacco, particularly kids, falsely believing it would be a deterrent.1 2 These laws, called purchase, use, and possession (PUP) laws, don’t keep people from using tobacco and, in fact, have historically held tragic and unintended consequences, especially for communities of color.3 4

PUP laws allow law enforcement to treat people who use tobacco like criminals when they are really the victims of Big Tobacco’s predatory targeting and addictive products. Black and Hispanic/Latino youth report higher PUP law citation rates than their white peers even after accounting for smoking frequency.5

Not only can PUP laws lead to racial targeting and violence6 7 – there’s little evidence they work.8 Instead, youth who use tobacco take greater care to avoid being caught rather than change their behavior.9 Laws focusing on tobacco retailers by restricting product sales hold businesses, rather than consumers, accountable.10 With proper funding and enforcement, retailer sales restrictions have proven to be better than PUP laws at reducing youth initiation and ongoing tobacco use.11

Tobacco policies that support healthy communities

According to Carol McGruder, cofounder and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, tobacco policies must be crafted and enforced in a way that prevents harm, loss of life, and acts of violence. Tobacco laws must decrease community access to these deadly addictive products and public health must provide culturally tailored services and programs that decrease demand by supporting people who want to quit using these products.

“The tobacco industry has spent decades targeting – and killing – Black community members through predatory marketing tactics designed to hook our community on deadly products like mint and menthol cigarettes,” says McGruder. “What’s worse, in their efforts to protect profits, the industry pushed the lie that these products are a part of Black culture while exploiting the community’s very real fear of police brutality. The passage of California’s flavored tobacco law in 2022 is groundbreaking not only because it is a giant step forward to ending this exploitation, but because it was designed to avoid further criminalizing Black and Brown folks.”

Holding retailers responsible

California is committed to ending the tobacco epidemic in the state without causing further harm to our communities. To ensure tobacco laws are equitable and work as intended, a California state law decriminalized the purchase, use, and possession of all tobacco products or paraphernalia in 2016.12 However, this law did not prohibit local jurisdictions from including PUP provisions in local tobacco laws.

Removing all local PUP provisions and enforcing California’s new Flavored Tobacco law13 are important steps to reducing Big Tobacco’s influence. Laws that focus on retailers and not the criminalization of individuals is not only better policy – it’s one way that Californians can address racial injustice.

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Hold the industry accountable

California has already protected people from other harmful products, and it's time to hold the tobacco industry to the same standards.