BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When it comes to the conversation about Black smokers and menthol cigarettes, it's important to understand how we got here.
Lincoln Mondy's movie "Black Lives/Black Lungs" details how the tobacco industry targeted African American communities starting in the early 1950s. Today, he said the most recent studies show nearly 90% of Black smokers prefer menthol.
"We got here because they had unfettered access in broad daylight to wheel and deal to make menthols cheaper in Black communities. My film shows them handing out free menthol packets in urban areas like Detroit, New York and Chicago, and it really shows their long-term game plan of infiltrating the Black community with menthol products," Mondy said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing banning flavored tobacco products, including menthol. On Thursday, a group of Black clergy in Buffalo expressed concern about the plan, suggesting it unfairly targets people in their community and suggesting it be withdrawn and a working group instead convened to make recommendations to the Legislature.
"If you're going to take a stance for health disparities, if you're going to take a stance for health and wellness as it relates to smoking, ban all cigarettes," said Pastor Timothy J. Brown Sr., president of the Baptist Minister's Conference of Buffalo & Vicinity.
The co-chair of the national African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, Carol McGruder, said these laws are not about penalizing Black people, but rather righting wrongs of the past and saving lives.
"It's about protecting Black smokers and for them to know that they can stop smoking. So we don't want people to switch to full flavored tobacco. We want our people to stop," McGruder said.
The governor's office said the proposed ban would not make it illegal to possess, purchase or use flavored tobacco and instead targets retailers with civil penalties at the point of sale. However, Black community leaders remain concerned about unintended consequences.
"We appreciate her passion to help people to live better lives, but we want to make sure that all people live better lives and that we don't set a precedent that gives policing agencies another opportunity to profile and to wrongfully charge or incarcerate people of color," Brown said.
McGruder said big tobacco has regularly used this specific fear as a way to push back against menthol bans.
"It makes me so angry that the tobacco industry, they latch on to our really visceral grievances and concerns that are legitimate grievances and concerns as we see all these videos of Black men being killed by the police all the time but these laws are getting above that. They're with the retailers and they're with the manufacturers and that's where we want to keep it," she said.
New York would become the third state to ban menthol cigarettes following Massachusetts and California. The Biden administration is also looking at banning menthols at the federal level.