ANALYSIS / OPINION:
Earlier this month, a disturbing incident of over-surveillance on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland was caught on camera. Police tasered a black teenager and arrested at least two others for vaping in violation of a city smoking ban. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the law, draconian cop enforcement highlights a bigger problem with modern policing: Petty offenses too often escalate into dangerous, even fatal, incidents.
Sadly, the DC City Council is opening the door to such ruthless tactics in our very city with a proposal to ban all flavored tobacco products, including vapers and menthol cigarettes. The bill, due for second reading on June 29, will reduce the city’s tax revenue and lead smokers to have other interactions with the police – with potentially long-term consequences for minority communities.
First, on the tax front, the district finance director’s office estimates that the ban will result in a loss of $ 3 million, or 13.5 percent of cigarette tax revenue in the first year, and a further drop. $ 8.6 million over the next three years. years. However, as the non-partisan Tax Foundation points out, these numbers are extremely optimistic given the avenues of other states like Massachusetts that have implemented a similar ban.
Bay State has seen a $ 120 million or 26% drop in tax revenue on cigarettes since their ban took effect in June 2020. DC should expect a similar drop because, just like in Massachusetts, smokers can easily cross state borders to purchase their products. of choice. In fact, the DC ban could potentially lead to a more severe drop given that menthol’s market share in the district (60%) is double that of Massachusetts (30%). In total, the Tax Foundation estimates that the drop in revenue could be as much as $ 12 million in the first year alone.
As I pointed out in these pages last month, 85% of black smokers use menthol cigarettes compared to only 30% of white smokers. As a result, banning flavors from DC will have a disproportionate impact on minorities in our city. In fact, DC’s Office of the Racial Equality Council (CORE) raised concerns in its impact assessment, noting that “the implementation of the bill has the potential to exacerbate racial inequalities in the results of economic and social justice ”.
As the bill stands, the proposed fine for individuals will not exceed $ 25. However, CORE stresses that the potential for long-term effects on low-income communities is still serious: “Unpaid fines may increase due to late fees, becoming larger than legislated but resulting in“ effects ”. long-term credit scores and background checks, which makes it more difficult to obtain a quality job or housing, and increases the likelihood that future financial shocks will face other types of unsecured debt, such as payday lenders or credit cards.
Additionally, under the city’s Clean Hands Act, residents with debt to the city greater than $ 100 will soon no longer be able to obtain a driver’s license, business license, or compete for government contracts. This could be particularly devastating for small business owners, who face a fine of up to $ 10,000 for violating the flavor ban.
Most worrying, however, is that the law will lead vapers and smokers of menthol cigarettes to have more interactions with the police. Given the demographics discussed earlier, this could have dangerous consequences along the lines of what we’re seeing in Ocean City earlier this month. There is absolutely no excuse for DC politicians, who have talked a lot about racial justice over the past year, to turn around and pass legislation that will disproportionately impact communities of color for the worse.
To add insult to injury, the council is not holding any public hearing on the bill, which would deal a serious blow to government transparency. The board claims it doesn’t need it since it held a public hearing on a full flavor ban in 2020. However, we’ve held an election since then, and the board is in a new session. DC residents should have the right to petition their government in a timely manner; new laws should not be introduced through the back door.
The flavor ban proposed by the DC council will deal a critical blow to the city’s tax revenues and lead smokers to have further interactions with the police with long-term consequences for communities of color. At a time when the country has a much needed conversation about over-policing, DC shouldn’t surreptitiously force pass a bill that its own racial equality office has flagged as having negative consequences for minorities. At the very least, a public hearing should be held. My fellow citizens in the District deserve better.
• Casey Given is the President and CEO of Young Voices.