New York governor Kathy Hochul’s plan to ban menthol and flavoured cigarettes as part of her $227bn budget proposal has hit a stumbling block.
As budget negotiations leave out the proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, tensions are rising among lawmakers, public health advocates, and business organisations. Will the ban find its way back into legislation, or is this the end of the road?
The proposed ban, which has garnered both support and opposition from various industry members, has been widely supported by Democrats. However, Democratic state lawmakers’ budget proposals in both the Assembly and Senate have excluded the ban as part of backroom deals to get the governor a budget that reflects her priorities and is delivered on time.
This move casts doubt on whether the measure can be included in a final state budget deal, expected by 1st April.
Assembly member Stefani Zinerman, a proponent of the ban, shared her support for the measure with TobaccoIntelligence, stating: “The ban will stem the tide of a new wave of people who become addicted to cigarettes. And either in the budget or through separate legislation, we will work to take this necessary measure.” Zinerman is part of a strong contingent within the Assembly that supports the governor’s proposal, including public health advocates and the New York State National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the head of which – Hazel Dukes – expressed disappointment at the possibility of it being excluded.
On the other hand, Kent Sopris, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, expressed scepticism about the ban’s efficacy, citing concerns about the impact on businesses and the potential targeting of minority communities by law enforcement.
In an open letter to governor Hochul, Sopris wrote: “Increasing cigarette taxes or banning categories of products is a step in the wrong direction. When the state makes a product unavailable in the legit retail space, whether, through prohibition or tax increases, consumers will find an alternative means of obtaining it.”
During a 3rd March press conference, governor Hochul addressed concerns that the menthol ban could further systemic issues and disproportionately target Black smokers, who make up more than 85% of menthol users. She emphasised that the ban is supported by public health authorities and leaders from communities of colour, including Hazel Dukes.
Hochul explained that she is concerned about “the highly addictive properties of menthol, because it has more soothing ingredients that make it easier to smoke more, and it’s more of an attraction to young people to start out on the path of a lifetime of smoking addiction. This is a public health matter.”
Tax increases remain in budget proposal
Despite Democratic lawmakers leaving the menthol ban out of their budget proposals, they did keep the $1 tax increase on cigarettes. The tax hike would bring New York’s cigarette tax from $4.35 to $5.35, making it the highest in the nation. Public health advocates argue that the added tax revenue could help fund anti-tobacco programmes in the state.
The Assembly’s Budget Book acknowledges that this $1 increase in the per-pack tax will likely decrease the state’s revenue by about $25m in the 2025 fiscal year, if adopted. Sopris went on in his letter to add: “Instead of representing decreasing smokers, the budget numbers show a shift of revenue from legal to illegal retail. This means more product for the flourishing underground economy and less funding for cessation and enforcement programs.”
As budget negotiations continue, the fate of the menthol ban remains uncertain. With strong voices on both sides of the debate, the coming weeks will reveal whether the ban will be resurrected in separate legislation or ultimately be extinguished.
– James DeLise TobaccoIntelligence contributing writer
Photo: Mia Arsua