Sen. Jill Duson called on fellow lawmakers Wednesday to support a bill that bans the sale of menthol cigarettes in Maine, saying that for too long, aggressive marketing by tobacco companies has led to too many deaths in the African American community.

“The use of menthol makes cigarettes more palatable and addictive, exacerbating the public health crisis in communities of color,” said Duson, a Portland Democrat.

Menthol cigarettes and menthol flavored vapes are included in a bill that’s pending in the House that seeks to end the sale of flavored tobacco products. While much of the attention has been around preventing teens from accessing fruity flavored vaping products, the leaders who spoke Wednesday say there’s another reason to ban the sale of flavored tobacco in Maine.

Duson said the bill, LD 1215, “is a critical step toward rectifying the systemic inequities and injustices inflicted by the tobacco industry. It is a move toward healing, toward justice and toward a healthier future for all Mainers.”

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives each year, according to the American Lung Association. Advocates say in the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes, a number that has climbed to 85% after decades of marketing the products to Black smokers, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

A spokesman for Altria, the parent company of cigarette giant Philip Morris, responded to a request for comment from Spectrum News by asking for more information about the press conference. When provided with a release that stated that the purpose of the event was to highlight the tobacco industry’s role in “targeting the Black community with menthol cigarettes,” he responded with no comment.

R.J. Reynolds, the nation’s second largest cigarette company, did not respond to a request for comment.

Duson’s bill to put a statewide ban in place follows action at the local level, where seven cities or towns have already banned the sale of flavored tobacco products: Bangor, Bar Harbor, Brunswick, Freeport, Hallowell, Portland and South Portland.

The statewide ban seeks to prevent the products from being sold, but does not penalize the purchase, use or possession of them.

Opponents of the ban, most notably the New England Convenience Store & Marketers Association, say a statewide ban will force buyers to go out of state and reduce state revenues to the tune of $24 million a year.

Another opponent, Rep. David Boyer (R-Poland), told reporters at the State House Wednesday that the bill would create an underground market and that in some instances, vaping helps adults break their cigarette addiction.

“It’s just sad that we have nanny state Democrats trying to control people’s lives,” Boyer said. “Let adults be adults. People are so sick of putting up the children on some kind of altar to run public policy that has nothing to do with them.”

He said current state law requires those who purchase tobacco products to be 21.

Minou Jones, CEO of Making it Count Community Development Corp. in Michigan, said states need to take action to ban menthol cigarettes because of a lack of help from the federal government.

“We’re looking to you in Maine,” she said. “Your voice helps to signal on a national level what’s right, what’s just, what’s equal, what’s equitable and fair for all Americans.”

The bill passed the Senate last year but has been pending on the House calendar for months. It has the support of House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland).

“By eliminating the sale of flavored tobacco products, including the notorious menthol, we are severing the link in the chain of systemic bias and heath inequities,” she said.