Businesses are not pleased about the push by Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ‘73 to ban menthol cigarettes.
In an Apr. 18 letter, Blumenthal expressed his support for the United States Food and Drug Administration’s call to ban cigarettes with more than 0.3 percent menthol by weight. But six New Haven store proprietors interviewed said they were worried about how this move would negatively affect thier business profits. While business operators and smokers interviewed agreed that the potential ban would have public health benefits, they said business interests and personal freedom should also be considered.
Blumenthal defended the FDA’s push to ban menthol cigarettes in his letter and cited the health benefits the ban would bring, which were detailed in a March report by the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee.
“[Blumenthal] has advocated for a removal of menthol tobacco products from the marketplace, and hopes that the FDA will act swiftly to implement the committee’s findings,” said Kate Hansen, a spokesperson for Blumenthal. “While youth will still be susceptible to aggressive marketing by tobacco companies, removing menthol tobacco products from the marketplace is an important step in reducing harm and protecting public health.”
But six of seven businesses said the negative business impact outweighs the health benefits of a menthol cigarette ban.
At the two Sam’s Food Stores on Whalley Ave. and Kimberly Ave., employees said around 80 percent of cigarette sales are menthol-flavored, and sales might drop because not all customers would switch to alternatives if the ban were enacted. Employees said that although menthol cigarettes are priced similarly to non-menthol counterparts, there is still a higher demand for them. They added that customers of the product were roughly spread evenly across all age demographics.
Joe Lentine, the master tobacconist at the Owl Shop on College St., said that especially at smaller convenience stores that sell cigarettes, the ban could have a significant negative impact on business, explaining that such stores were popular with younger customers that liked menthol cigarettes. He added that the impact of a menthol cigarette ban on the Owl Shop would be minimal because of the store’s inventory and typical clientele.
One underage smoker near the Sam’s Food Store on Whalley Ave., who asked to remain anonymous because he had acquired his cigarettes illegally through older acquaintances, said that his underage friends smoked only menthol cigarettes.
“I don’t understand what Blumenthal’s going on about,” he said. “We have a God-given right to choose what we smoke.”
This smoker was one of nine New Haven smokers interviewed who said they did not support a ban of menthol cigarettes.
Justin Petrillo ’11, a member of the Committee for Freedom who has participated in a number of smoke outs this year, estimated that around 10 percent of smokers on Yale campus consume the menthol-flavored cigarettes.
Petrillo said he does not smoke menthol cigarettes but thinks a potential ban would be a “horrible idea.”
“[The damaging affects of smoking] ought to be tackled by awareness, not a ban,” he said. “I don’t think there is any reason that any sort of cigarettes should be banned or there should be a set age at which you can begin to smoke.”
City officials said they supported Blumenthal’s move, though there are other complexities that ought to be considered.
Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah, who is the chair of the city’s Finance Committee, said that he supports Blumenthal’s call for the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes. He said that while businesses in his neighborhood could take a hit, this will be countered by the profit from illegal sales of “loosies” — which are individual cigarettes that citizens buy illegally because they cannot afford entire packets. These individual cigarettes are priced higher than buying whole packets, he added.
“I would prefer that people didn’t smoke at all, particularly in our area, where we have the hospital and other facilities,” he said. “But we know that’s not a reality, and I think this is a step in the right direction.”
Menthol cigarettes were first developed in 1927 and constitute 20 percent of the American cigarette market according to United States Federal Trade Commission’s latest Cigarette Report, issued in 2009.