Amidst the bevy of corporate and institutional declarations on racism injustice issued since George Floyd’s death, one stood out as particularly egregious. On June 1, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids published its statement on the killing, which the organization’s president, Matt Myers, described as a vivid reminder of “the deep-seated racism that is far too pervasive throughout our country and our society.”
Those unfamiliar with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids may not find anything objectionable in Myers’s statement. But Myers and his organization have worked for years to escalate and expand the drug war—a war that disproportionately harms people of color. Thus, their pledge to “do what we can to foster the needed dialogue and be active participants in seeking solutions” should begin with an examination of their role in creating the injustices they now decry.
Funded in large part by Michael Bloomberg, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids ostensibly exists to reduce smoking among adolescents. In practice, it exists to push local, state, and federal governments—in the U.S. and around the world—to enact high taxes, regulatory policies, and criminal penalties surrounding the sale, possession, and use of tobacco products. Put another way, they have spent the last 25 years trying to make tobacco a target of the War on Drugs, which already encompasses marijuana, hallucinogens, and narcotics. Anti-tobacco activists, like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are anti-drug warriors. Their drug of disdain is nicotine.
If the goal of the “War on Drugs,” initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1970, was to reduce drug use, it has been a spectacular failure. But drugs were never really the purpose; it was designed to put Nixon’s political opponents in prison, opponents who, according to his top aides, included black people. As, Nixon’s Domestic Affairs advisor, John Ehrlichman, said in a 1994 interview:
[W]e couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities ... arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
By that standard, the War on Drugs has been wildly successful.
In the 1970s the average number of people in state prisons per 100,000 residents was between 130 and 260. By the 1990s, the number had jumped to 600 and has only continued to rise since. And, as intended, the majority of those locked in prisons are people of color.
More than half of all federal inmates and a fifth of those in state and federal prisons, combined, are there on drug charges. The majority have no history of violence and nearly half are there for possession. In 1997 a shocking majority of drug offenders in state prisons, 79 percent, were black or Hispanic. In some states, the numbers are even more disconcerting. Among black people convicted of a crime in Maryland between 1996 and 2001, for example, 64 percent were sentenced for drug violations. Among all individuals sentenced for drug crimes in the state during that same period, 81 percent were black.
But the data on America’s overcrowded prisons tell only a small part of the story. It doesn’t describe the incalculable number of negative interactions between people of color and law enforcement that begin under the pretext of suspected drug violations.
Floyd’s deadly encounter with Minneapolis police began when a store clerk suspected him of using a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase a pack of cigarettes. cigarettes (while using counterfeit currency is illegal for good reason, the extent of force used by the officer was disproportionate for the alleged, non-violent crime). Minnesota has among the highest tobacco taxes in the nation, with a per pack average cost of more than $8. These taxes are championed by groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other anti-tobacco warriors and labeled as a “victory” for kids and public health. And, as with any product for which there is demand, very high prices can lead to people to behave in ways that put them in greater risk than they would be otherwise.
High cigarette taxes are partially to blame for another unjustified killing of a black man by police: Eric Garner. Thanks to New York’s extraordinarily high tobacco tax rate, the average cost of a pack of cigarettes in the state is nearly $13—and higher in New York City. Predictably, this has led to a rampant illicit market, with more than 60 percent of the cigarettes sold in the state smuggled from states with lower taxes. Selling untaxed single cigarettes, or “loosies,” was the offense police suspected Eric Garner of committing in Staten Island in 2014. The stop led to a confrontation, during which officers held Garner in a chokehold, suffocating him to death.
Just last week, La Mesa, California, police arrested Amaurie Johnson, a 23 year-old black man, for assaulting an officer, but the incident began when police approached Johnson for smoking in public, which the city banned earlier this year. The arrest, which was caught on video, was unnecessarily forceful, but thankfully did not end in tragedy. Johnson was issued a citation and released. Last month, video posted to social media shows a Rancho Cordova, California, police officer savagely beating a 14 year-old black boy, an encounter that began because the underage boy allegedly purchased a Swisher cigar. Adolescents of color are, in fact, 1.5 to 1.7 times more likely to receive citations for “underage possession of tobacco” than their white peers.
Events like these, as black Americans are well aware of, and others are just beginning to comprehend, are neither rare nor a new. The suspicion of drug use has provided police with the pretense to stop, harass, beat, arrest, and sometimes kill black Americans for decades. The first time a Chicago police officer was ever charged with first-degree murder came in 1981 after two officers brutally beat 51-year-old Richard Ramey to death. The officers reportedly kicked, beat, and slammed Ramey’s head through a window causing a small neck fracture, nine broken ribs, and massive internal hemorrhaging. His offense? Smoking on the train.
Whether directed against marijuana, opioids, alcohol, or tobacco, drug wars always have the same result. They never succeed in preventing substance use, but rather create booming illicit markets and turn honest citizens into criminals overnight. While anti-drug warriors and the laws they support may not be explicitly, or intentionally, racist, the way they are enforced can disproportionately affect minorities, those with fewer resources, and other marginalized populations. How persuasive can Myers’s concern be, given the impact of his organization’s policies in creating new opportunities for confrontations between people of color and law enforcement?
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ supposed interest in ameliorating racial health disparities, also noted in their statement, is almost as counterproductive as their work on criminal justice. For many years, the organization has focused not on deadly combustible cigarettes, but on nicotine vapor products. Their efforts to ban and scare people about “e-cigarettes” will only worsen health disparities. Americans of color are more likely to die of smoking-related diseases than white Americans. With compelling evidence that non-combustible forms of nicotine, like vapor products, are significantly less harmful and more effective than other methods for smoking cessation, anything that makes it less likely that people will switch to these lower-risk alternatives costs lives.
Making e-cigarettes harder to obtain, more expensive, less satisfying, or outright illegal are the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ major goals. While the group has not succeeded in enacting widespread bans, it has had many other victories, like the ban on e-cigarette sales in San Francisco and the law in Massachusetts that makes it a crime to illegally possess an e-cigarette (for which the state can seize your car). For someone living and working at the margins of the economy, losing your car could mean the difference between swimming or sinking.
They also succeeded in making it a crime for adults, 18 to 20 years of age, to purchase tobacco, including e-cigarettes. But their biggest triumph is that, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, they have managed to mislead the public into believing unfounded claims like that e-cigarettes cause cancer and are no less harmful than smoking.
What is the likelihood that the police, courts, and society will enforce these rules in an unbiased way? As history has demonstrated, repeatedly, not very likely.
The anti-drug warriors at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in other leading anti-tobacco groups, and in government can issue statements saying black lives matter to them, but their actions tell a different story.