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Experts call for public education, awareness using ethnic media: Unintended consequences

David McCoy
Insight News Intern –

Al McFarlane (back to camera) discussing with (left to right) Tom Gitta, publisher of Mshale Newspaper, former congressman, Kendrick Meek and Petersburg, Va. Police chief, John Dixon, the ramifications of a proposed Minneapolis ordinance that would ban menthol cigarettes. Photo credit: Wameng Moua/Hmong Today

“They are making policies without considering the lives of who will be affected.”

That was the sentiment expressed in discussing a Minneapolis City Council proposal to restrict sales of menthol tobacco products from retail establishments. Menthol would not be sold in grocery stores and service stations and convenience store, and could only be purchased at the specialty smoke shops that can only serve adults 21 years old and older. This ordinance, which has a public hearing July 24, and the unintended consequences were the topic this week on “Conversations with Al McFarlane.”

Joining host Al McFarlane were experienced men of law enforcement and voices for the community, including the past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and chief of police for Petersburg, Va., John Dixon, III, former congressman of the 17th Congressional District of Florida, Kendrick Meek and Mshale newspaper publisher, Tom Gitaa.

“These are policies written without forethought,” said Dixon. In addition to his work with NOBLE, Dixon served the City of Richmond Police department for 23 years prior to his post in Petersburg in 2007. “You know prohibition doesn’t work. The focus should be on education. Eighty percent of menthol smoking is by people of color.”

“I would like to come into this as a former legislator,” said Meek, who served in the Florida House of Representatives and in the Florida Senate from 1995 to 2002 and the U.S. House from 2003 to 2011. He started his career as a trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol and made the rank of captain. “A number of folks putting forth this ban (are arguing) the government’s lack of action … will have health effects on families.”

But Meek said in 2009 the Congress gave the FDA full responsibility to regulate all tobacco sales.

“Congress decided not to implement the ban because of how it will affect the Black community. The FDA decided not to (pursue it), and former President Barack Obama decided not to,” said Meek.

“ He described scenarios in which an average person buying or selling a menthol product could get a citation or arrested. “You’re criminalizing these individuals,” he said.

A key part of the discussion was what will happen if this ordinance passes.

“The war on drugs was a war on Black people, locking up millions. (Yet) drugs are still coming into our communities,” said Dixon. “It feels good to say, ‘stop flavored cigarettes’ but it has consequences.”

There are 26 states legalizing marijuana, for recreational or medical usage, but none are doing anything for the thousands who have been incarcerated for possession. The former lawmen said the proposed amendment expanding the ordinance that restricts sale of flavored tobacco, in criminalizing menthol tobacco sales except in limited locations will similarly negatively impact Minneapolis’ Black residents who use menthol products..

“My concern is law enforcement encounter,” said Gitaa. As well as own Mshale, Gitaa is president of Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium. McFarlane is co-founder and chairman of the Consortium. “As an immigrant, I know, some of us smoke, but we could be deported over a felony, or even a misdemeanor,” Gitaa said.

“I have allergies, and I still need to show my ID to get my Allegra D,” said Meek. “Meanwhile, you don’t see the person who goes to their doctor and gets a fake prescription; you don’t see them get stopped like on the show ‘Cops,’ and they raid the doctor’s office. What you do see are the police busting through Black homes.”

The former lawmen said it’s not farfetched to think the criminalization of menthol could have horrific consequences for Black people.

“Eric Gardner is proof. Selling loosies should have never led to someone’s death,” said Dixon, referencing the New York man who was choked to death by a New York police officer on suspicion of selling single cigarettes in 2014.

“What we need is effective information and effective education. We already have victims of smoking in our families, we know the dangers,” said McFarlane, who said the focus should be on education, not restriction. “(In the past) you could go around and see litter everywhere. But through education this country changed mindsets on litter. We’re a cleaner country, and that can happen around tobacco.”

“It’s counterproductive to be banning menthol,” said Meek. He said public awareness and education investment would be a better use of energy and resources.

Dixon encouraged citizens to be present at the July 24 Minneapolis City Council hearing.

“If you’re not at the table, you don’t eat. Nobody can speak for you better than yourself,” said Dixon.

July 17, 2017
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