A row of flavored cigars — kiwi, strawberry, mango, pineapple and watermelon — stretched behind Smokers Choice manager Gabrielle Welsh on Friday as she gathered products for Cindy Williams of Cortland.
Williams wanted some pipe tobacco, cigarette tubes and menthol-flavored cigarette tobacco.
“I’d rather have menthol because it has more of a taste to it,” Williams said.
But if the product were banned, it wouldn’t stop her from smoking.
“I went from regular to menthol,” she said. She’d just return to unflavored tobacco.
A proposed national ban on flavored tobacco could cause Cortland County smoke shops to lose revenue, businesses said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made the decision to push for the ban following a 2013 petition filed by public health organizations, states a news release from the American Heart Association.
“A prohibition on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars would mark a historic turning point in the decades-long battle against tobacco use and the epidemic of tobacco-related disease,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.
But local smoke shops like the Daily Grind in Cortland and Smokers Choice on Clinton Avenue in Cortland would see sales reduced, Welsh said.
“Flavored tobacco and flavored wraps are something we sell a lot of, and it does constitute one-eighth of our sales,” Welsh said. “It would be a huge bummer and a huge hit to our corporation.”
The ban wouldn’t only remove cigarettes and cigars from their product line, Welsh said. It removes the sale of chewing tobacco, flavored wraps, JUUL pods and other flavored nicotine substitutes.
But regulations are not enforced and the federal government doesn’t check to make sure shops aren’t continuing to sell banned products, said Larissa Larsen, manager of the Daily Grind on Main Street.
“I’ve been working here for a while and we’ve never had that happen,” Larsen said. “They don’t regulate what we sell, we just need certain licenses for tobacco and alcohol products.”
The tobacco industry targets the youth and Black populations, the American Heart Association claims. Flavored menthol products, like cigarettes and cigars, serve as a gateway to prolonged tobacco use.
“A lot of this is being tagged a social justice issue with a lot of the marketing and a lot of African-American and Hispanic users using menthol products,” said Jennifer Hamilton, public health educator with the Cortland County Health Department. “They are heavily targeted by the industry to use these products.”
In the 1960s, the tobacco industry found a niche to portray the Black community as part of a fun crowd, pulling the perception away from stereotypes of violence and crime, Hamilton said. The marketing has since stuck.
In New York, 90% of Black people who smoke use menthol cigarettes, Hamilton said. And the average age that individuals start smoking, regardless of race, is 13.
Despite the statistics, both Smokers Choice and the Daily Grind don’t see an influx of youth or Black buyers, the managers said.
“A lot of these customers have been coming here forever, both young and old, and I have the Asian community that buys menthol cigarettes, too,” Larsen said. “It’s not really targeted to those groups of people.”
“I don’t get a lot of young people in my shop that are 21 or in their 20s buying menthol products,” Welsh said. “I don’t see a lot of Black community members in my specific store buying menthol cigarettes.”
Even though fewer people smoke cigarettes now than in the past, the percentage of people who smoke menthol cigarettes is going down more slowly than the percentage of people who smoke non-menthol cigarettes, reports the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We continue to push the message that we want a healthy, vibrant community and there are ways to do it,” Hamilton said. “We are working with local governments to see if they’re willing to put forth a policy that would restrict access to these products.”