The proposed ban on flavored tobacco products in Gov. Kathy Hochul's $227 billion budget plan has drawn opposition from members of the clergy, who in a letter set to be released later on Monday pointed to civil rights and criminal justice concerns with the implications of banning menthol cigarettes in New York.

Clergy members signing onto the letter predominantly come from Buffalo and parts of western New York as well as Albany and Harlem.

"It is unjust to expect communities of color to choose between greater public health protections and basic civil rights," they wrote in the letter. "We do not accept the premise that we must choose between the two, that these interests are mutually exclusive, or that this debate is zero-sum. A working group consisting of social justice advocates and law enforcement leaders, along with other organizations, is the best solution available to bridge the current divide."

Hochul's proposal, which has the backing of medical organization and anti-smoking advocacy organizations, would also raise the per-pack tax on cigarettes in the state by $1 to $5.35.

The anti-tobacco groups have praised the proposals, arguing those measures would reduce the chances of younger people becoming addicted to nicotine and save lives in the process.

But opponents have included tobacco companies as well as the New York Association of Convenience Stores, which have argued the changes would lead to the proliferation of illegal cigarette sales that remain untaxed.

Menthol cigarettes are typically considered one of the more popular cigarette products despite the dwindling number of people who smoke overall in New York. Officials at the state Department of Health last year reported a record low number of adults are smoking: For those between the ages of 18 and 24, the smoking rate is 5%. 

Clergy, meanwhile, believe the banning of flavored tobacco would lead to unfair outcomes for people of color. 

"Our collective primary interest is protecting the public, specifically communities of color, from abuse at the hands of both corporate influences and law enforcement," they wrote. "We share the same belief as others that we can have a robust and productive debate that prioritizes both public health and criminal justice concerns."

The clergy want Hochul to re-work the proposal and withdraw the menthol cigarette ban while also sitting down to have a discussion with the governor about the issue.

"To that end, we are requesting that any proposed ban on menthol cigarettes be withdrawn at this time, and a working group convened, with the set mission to offer recommendations for new legislation," they wrote. "That working group must take into account all of our collective concerns and address the need for greater public health protections that do not compromise our constitutional and civil rights."