Critics slam Kathy Hochul’s ‘harsh legislation’ banning menthol cigs, flavored tobacco as ‘unjust’

Holy smokes!

Gov. Kathy Hochul is drawing heat over her pitch for a statewide ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and vape products that critics say is “unfair” to people of color, impractical to enforce, and costly to state taxpayers while potentially snuffing out hookah lounges across New York.

“It’s harsh legislation, it’s unjust,” said Assemblyman Nader Sayegh (D-Yonkers). “It’s not equitable to say: ‘Stop smoking hookah but you can go smoke pot.'”

The Jordanian-American legislator said the possible end of hookah bars will be particularly “unfair” to Middle Eastern and South Asian New Yorkers.

“I enjoy smoking hookah – I don’t abuse it – once in a while. It’s very enjoyable. It’s a cultural experience,” he said of the flavored-tobacco burning water pipes.

The Westchester Democrat is far from the only person feeling burned by the idea, included in the state budget unveiled by Hochul this week ahead of an April 1 deadline.

Hochul in a red outfit with her arms spread out behind a podium while delivering her budget address in the Red Room in the state Capitol in Albany.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has argued banning flavored tobacco and vapes will be worth the cost of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues in upcoming years.

Critics also say the ban disproportionately affects ethnic minority New Yorkers who enjoy menthol cigarettes and other products that would likely still be available on the black market if a state ban gets approved.

“Small businesses in New York are at risk of being squeezed out by the proposed illegal tobacco regulations, which would only stimulate a larger underground market and encourage people to buy unregulated products,” Youssef Mubarez of the Yemeni American Merchants Association said.

“Let us not forget the case of Eric Garner,” he added in reference to the Staten Island man who died in police custody nearly a decade ago after being confronted for selling loose cigarettes.

Juul pods in their packages on a shelf inside a store
Banning flavored vaping products would go a long ways towards cutting down on youth smoking rates, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul.
AFP via Getty Images

Garner’s mom, Gwen Carr, also opposes the ban, after fighting against similar efforts in New York City to outlaw menthol cigarettes in prior years alongside black luminaries like the Rev. Al Sharpton.

But the NAACP supports a ban on menthol cigarettes, saying the tobacco industry had aggressively marketed flavored cigarettes to “communities of color” that contributed to worse health outcomes for minorities.

“I’m glad Gov. Hochul is taking up the cause. This tobacco ban is on the NAACP’s legislative agenda,”  NAACP’s New York State president Hazel Dukes told the Post after Hochul first proposed the ban in her Jan. 10 State of the State address.

Hochul’s own budget proposal notes the ban would cost the state $133 million in lost tax revenues in the fiscal year beginning April 1 – and $255 million more in 2025.

“We have to tax it and if there’s revenue to be derived, fine, we got to gain the revenue – not the black market,” Sayegh said.

A hookah with its hoses on top of a table
Hookah lounges might disappear statewide per a Hochul proposal to ban flavored tobacco and vape products.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

But the newly-elected Hochul says the lost revenue is worth the costs considering the potential health benefits of making tobacco and nicotine products less flavorful.

“With commercial tobacco use the leading cause of preventable deaths, Gov. Hochul is leading the way to a tobacco-free generation to reduce youth smoking and prevent senseless deaths. As with any budget proposal, we will work with the legislature on the final details for the best way to protect public health,” Hochul spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays said when asked whether the proposed ban would also cover hookah lounges.

The proposed budget will increase regressive cigarette taxes from $4.35 to $5.35 per pack as part of efforts projected to save roughly 22,000 youth from adult nicotine addiction following years in which smoking and vaping rates have remained about the same as two decades ago.

Flavored vape produced lined up on a shelf with colorful boxes listing flavors like mango, apple and pineapple.
Tobacco and nicotine products come in a variety of flavors including kid-friendly tastes like apple, strawberry and pineapple.
Denver Post via Getty Images

States like California have exempted hookah lounges while implementing bans on flavored tobacco and vaping products.

“I think tobacco has always been a driver of negative health in New York and especially my neighborhood, but I think with New York City allowing licensing of hookah establishments it wouldn’t be wise to outright ban a business sanctioned by New York City,” Assemblyman Kenny Burgos (D-Bronx) said.

“[Policymakers] certainly have to look into impacts on people under 21 and how the marketing/prevalence affect them but I’m also not a big believer in governing the vice’s of consenting adults,” he added.

The Department of Health, its local counterparts, and the New York City Department of Worker Protection – rather than police – will be primarily tasked with enforcing any future ban that gets approved in Democrati-dominated Albany, according to the Hochul administration.

Future violators could face fines up to $1,500 under the proposal slated to take effect on Sept. 1, 2021, according to a legislative memo.

New York’s experience with enforcing existing taxes on tobacco products should make the governor reconsider her push considering the difficulty inherent in inspecting thousands of shops across the five boroughs, especially if health inspectors do not get back-up, according to former city Sheriff Edgar Domenech.

“There’s no way they can inspect 6700 stores that sell cigarettes,” Domenech, who was tasked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg with enforcing tobacco laws, told The Post Thursday.

“Where are the additional resources for law enforcement … because you’re now pushing illicit cigarettes onto the street?” he added.