After losing a battle with Rev. Al Sharpton to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes citywide, the NAACP’s Hazel Dukes and Rev. Kirsten John Foy have asked him to join an effort to craft new legislation that addresses the same criminal justice concerns Sharpton has been vying for all along.
Sharpton agreed to join the group, but in an interview with POLITICO, he said he wishes the effort had happened sooner.
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“They want to work out the criminal justice element, but an element to what bill?” he said Wednesday. “The better question is: if they’re willing to work on criminal justice now, what was their objection all along?”
Sharpton has voiced opposition to the bill for months over concerns that a ban on the sale of menthols will spur the growth of black market cigarette sales and increase interactions between black smokers and police. Eric Garner, who was killed at the hands of the NYPD, was first approached by officers for selling loose cigarettes illegally.
The bill’s demise, first reported by POLITICO, is a testament to Sharpton’s political sway in a city where many Council members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, are likely to run for new gigs when their terms are up in 2021.
The menthol ban had a veto-proof majority of 37 sponsors, as well as the backing of Dukes, Foy, public health officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio. But Johnson, echoing Sharpton’s objections, maintained he had concerns with criminalizing menthol smokers who are predominantly African-American and the bill never got out of the health committee, chaired by Council Member Mark Levine.
In a letter obtained by POLITICO, Foy, Dukes and Sharpton ask Johnson and Council Member Fernando Cabrera to kill the already abandoned bill, Intro. 1345, and establish a group to draft a new version.
“It is unjust to expect communities of color to choose between greater public health protections and basic civil rights,” the letter reads. “We do not accept the premise that we must choose between the two, that these interests are mutually exclusive nor that this debate is zero sum.”
Sharpton said the last-ditch effort to revitalize the ban shows “there’s been opposition all along.”
Police officers are required to arrest individuals selling loose cigarettes after a certain number of summonses have been issued, Sharpton said, adding an acceptable bill would aim to change those protocols.
“I want to see that there’s a bill that doesn’t put people at risk,” he said.
The fight over the bill cast Sharpton against political leaders like former mayor David Dinkins, Rep. Gregory Meeks and First Lady Chirlane McCray, who all backed the ban.
The divisions turned nasty in recent weeks. Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, has taken money in the past from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. When the bill died, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte took to Twitter, saying Sharpton had been “bought by tobacco companies” and asked the state attorney general to investigate.
Sharpton said the donations had nothing to do with his position on criminal justice.
“We get money from big tobacco, we get money from Bloomberg [for anti-tobacco initiatives],” he told POLITICO. "It’s down to criminal justice”
Foy — a menthol smoker who supported the ban citing public health risks for black and brown New Yorkers — said the divisive remarks from Bichotte were part of the catalyst to join forces with Sharpton, a long-time ally.
He said the idea was “to get through this issue in a collaborative way, in a productive way, in a context of good faith.”
The speaker’s office said it would continue to work through issues surrounding the bill.
“This issue is a priority for Speaker Johnson,” spokesperson Jacob Tugendrajch said. “The Council takes the feedback from these leaders seriously and will continue to work with them to improve the health and safety of New Yorkers.”