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Activists Say Banning Newport, Other Flavored Cigarettes Puts Black Lives in Danger

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The members of Neighborhood Forward - Los Angeles wait outside the State Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 20. Neighborhood Forward is in opposition to Senate Bill 793, which would ban menthol cigarettes in the state. Photo by Antonio R. Harvey

Eric Garner’s mother Gwendolyn Carr says, for Black Men, selling a single cigarette, known as “loosey,” can lead to an arrest, a prison sentence or even death. 

Six years ago, a police officer put her son in a chokehold and strangled him to death for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes on Staten Island, a borough of New York City. 

Now, Carr is speaking out in a new video against California Senate Bill (SB) 793, which she says will create the same circumstances – the illegal sale and use of menthol cigarettes and aggressive, racially-biased law enforcement — that led to her son’s death. If the Senate passes the bill and Gov. Newsom signs it into law, it would ban the sale of menthol tobacco and other flavored cigarette products. 

“A new law would criminalize menthol cigarettes, which Black people smoke almost exclusively, giving police officers another excuse to harm and arrest any Black man, woman or child they choose,” Carr says in the video opposing SB 793. “A bad law has consequences for mothers like me.” 

Carr is not alone in her opinion of the bill. Across California, there is opposition to SB 793, which, if passed, would become the country’s strongest restriction on flavored tobacco products, including Newport, Kool and Salem cigarettes — three brands Blacks disproportionately smoke. 

Old and young, faith leaders, retired law enforcement officers, and civil rights activists came together to protest SB 793. At protests in Los Angeles and Sacramento on Aug. 20, they called out the inherent discrimination coded into the language and spirit of SB 793, which California Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) authored. 

“The goal of this protest is to ensure we are heard,” said Rev. K.W. Tulloss, President of Baptist Ministers Conference Los Angeles and co-founder of Neighborhood FORWARD, a community-based social action organization. “SB 793 is a bad bill that’s not good for California. The unintended consequences of this legislation are real. Bills like this take us backward.” 

But on the same day of the protests, the Assembly Appropriations Committee passed the bill, sending the bill to the full Assembly for consideration. 

The rallies were two in a series of three held against SB793. The first one was held in front of the home of California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood). 

Like Carr, people and organizations that oppose SB 793 say it is discriminatory because some adult tobacco products — those preferred by whites – are exempted from the ban. 

Meanwhile, the tobacco products preferred by African American adult smokers, menthol cigarettes, are included in the ban. Exemptions in SB 793 include shisha tobacco, which is used in hookah water pipes, premium tobacco, and loose-leaf tobacco. 

The retail sale of flavored handmade premium cigars with a minimum price of $12 are also not prohibited under this bill. 

Some California residents say that the exemptions for certain kinds of tobacco nearly mirror laws that unequally penalized people for selling or possessing the same amounts of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. 

In 1986, the federal government passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which mandated stiffer punishments for people who sold crack cocaine, the rock form of the drug, which more Blacks used. Penalties for possessing or distributing cocaine powder, preferred by whites, were much lighter. Distributing just five grams of crack triggered a federal mandatory minimum prison sentence of 5 years. But it required 500 grams of cocaine for a distributor to receive a federal prison sentence of the same length of time – a 100:1 disparity. 

Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement (NOBLE) agree that the bill has a racist element to it. They say the bill demonstrates clear discrimination and preferential treatment between two tobacco products preferred by two different cultural groups. 

“We will not and cannot stand for more policies that resemble another Black tax yet find a way to make concessions and amendments for certain groups,” Rev. Tulloss said. “Hookah is exempted, yet menthol cigarettes are not. The Speaker can make this bill fair and that’s all we’re asking.” 

Existing law prohibits a person from selling or otherwise furnishing tobacco products to a person under 21 years of age. It also prohibits the use of tobacco products in county offices of education, on charter school or school district property, or near a playground or youth sports event. 

If SB 793 passes, each violation of the law would be punishable by a fine of $250. 

“Using candy, fruit, and other alluring flavors, the tobacco industry weaponized its tactics to beguile a new generation into nicotine addiction while keeping longtime users hooked. SB 793 breaks Big Tobacco’s death grip,” said Hill said after the Senate voted 33-4 to advance the bill to the Assembly last month. 

An estimated seven out of 10 African American youth ages 12 to 17 years smoke menthol cigarettes, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, African American adults make up the largest percentage of menthol cigarette users compared to other racial and ethnic groups, the CDC says. 

The coalition of SB 793 supporters include the Office of Lieutenant Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the Common Sense Kids, who are all bill sponsors. 

“SB 793 coauthors, cosponsors, African American thought leaders in government, health, the faith community, science, the arts and among our youth, as well as other supporters, have provided strong counterpoints to the obfuscation,” Hill stated. “We are confident that together we can ensure the strongest tobacco control restrictions in the country become California law.”

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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NNPA – Black Press w/ Hendriks Video Interview

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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