Reynolds American, the U.S.'s largest seller of menthol cigarettes, is invoking the memories of the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner in a campaign to fight against laws that would ban it from selling its biggest cash cow product.
An almost year-long investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that the company is paying a vast team of Black lobbyists and consultants, including former congressman Kendrick Meeks of Florida and Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, to protect its multi-billion dollar menthol cigarette market.
The company's message is that government efforts to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes unfairly target the Black community and equate to a new layer of racism in America.
The Times reports: "About 150 cities and counties have placed some sort of restriction on the sale of menthol cigarettes, most issuing an outright ban. If California votes to prohibit the sale of menthols in November, it would follow Massachusetts as the second state to do so. The Food and Drug Administration has drafted a national ban that could follow in the next few years, which estimates suggest could save more than 600,000 lives, including almost 250,000 Black lives."
This investigation has revealed that individuals and organizations working on Reynolds’ behalf have not properly declared their ties to the company.
“The web that keeps menthol present in cities is not an accident. It’s not driven by some kind of innate Black taste for menthol,” said Keith Wailoo, a history professor at Princeton University and author of “Pushing Cool,” a book about menthol cigarettes. “It is a byproduct of a complex and relentless story of how markets were built and sustained.”
In response to a list of questions, Reynolds American told reporters it believed that “regulating menthol cigarettes differently than non-menthol cigarettes would result in numerous troubling unintended consequences, including significant growth in contraband menthol cigarettes sold through an already widespread underground market.”
Sharpton and Meek did not respond to multiple inquiries from The Times. In the past, Sharpton has cited the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who New York City police detained for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
“They killed him over ‘loosie’ cigarettes,” he said at a 2016 forum held in an Oakland church, referring to allegations that Garner was illegally selling single cigarettes. “How many of these kind of situations are we going to have if we keep having these kind of engagements around criminalizing of low-level offenses?”