Bill to ban menthol cigarettes moves forward, despite objections

By: - June 16, 2023 7:04 am

Critics of a proposed ban on menthol cigarettes said it would hurt businesses. A Senate panel advanced it anyway, citing addiction concerns. (Photo Illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A Senate panel has advanced a bill that would ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, despite critics’ warnings that it would create a black market and drive smokers to spend money in other states.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bill, accused the tobacco industry of “willful indifference to addiction” for marketing menthol products for decades, especially to people of color. He chairs the Senate’s health committee, which heard the bill Thursday.

“They did this on purpose,” Vitale said of the industry.

Supporters of the measure shared stories of loved ones lost to lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases. Menthol can make nicotine products more addictive because it cools the throat to make smoking feel less harsh, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kevin Schroth, director of Rutgers University’s Center for Tobacco Studies, told the panel menthol cigarettes are “a product that never should have been legal in the first place – and wouldn’t be legal if we knew its health consequences at the time it was introduced on the market.”

“Addressing menthol cigarettes is perhaps the most consequential step that the New Jersey Legislature could possibly entertain,” Schroth said. “Cigarettes are the deadliest product in the history of the world. Literally. There’s no doubt about it if you look at the numbers. And menthol is the deadliest and most problematic category in the cigarette world.”

Corinne Orlando of the American Heart Association urged lawmakers to ban all flavored smoking products, not just menthol.

But critics repeated the refrain that “prohibition doesn’t work” and urged legislators to focus instead on addiction treatment and public awareness campaigns.

They said state action is unnecessary, reminding legislators that the federal Food and Drug Administration is already working on the issue. Some accused legislators of hypocrisy for legalizing marijuana smoking and flavored cannabis products while targeting menthol cigarettes for a ban.

And business lobbyists warned a ban would devastate convenience stores and other retailers that rely on cigarette sales and the ancillary sales of smokers.

“If New Jersey bans menthol, what we expect to happen is that consumers will seek out these products in other states, online, and unfortunately, the black market. This harms the state, in terms of the tax revenue, and it harms legitimate retailers, particularly retailers near the border,” said Mary Ellen Peppard of the New Jersey Food Council.

She added: “Illegal sellers do not check ID. They do not care about preventing underage use.”

One critic worried banning menthol cigarettes would worsen the over-policing of people of color and possibly lead to police violence.

“The danger that I want senators to think about is having a police officer having an encounter with a Black or a Hispanic individual because of a menthol cigarette,” said the Rev. Steffie Bartley of the National Action Network. “Eric Garner lost his life because of cigarettes.”

Vitale told Bartley the bill criminalizes the retail sale of menthol cigarettes, not possession.

After more than an hour of testimony, the committee advanced the bill along party lines. The Assembly’s health committee passed it last June.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.