The 8-to-5 vote came after a lengthy debate in which legislators who opposed the ban — and even some who favored it — raised concerns that the law could create opportunities for Black smokers to be harassed by police, and that the city would be unfairly targeting a smoking choice preferred by Black residents.
It was the council’s second vote in favor of the legislation, meaning that it now heads to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who supports the ban for health reasons and is expected to sign it into law.
The District joins the state of Massachusetts and some other cities across the country in banning menthol cigarettes, which are popular with Black smokers of all ages, alongside other flavored tobacco products such as the candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes that critics say are targeted toward inducing teenagers to smoke.
The Biden administration has vowed to eventually outlaw such flavored tobacco products, including menthol, nationwide.
The D.C. bill bans the sale of the products in the District but does not criminalize an individual’s smoking of a cigarette. The council originally considered banning only e-cigarette products before expanding the bill to include menthol, a step that several legislators opposed.
“If the question is, ‘Is menthol bad for us?’ the answer certainly is yes. But if the question is, ‘Is smoking bad for us?’ the answer also is yes,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who voted against the ban. “In the original bill, we were trying to get at things that were targeted toward youth, flavored items. Menthol to me seems like a different category. . . . I’m seeing this as paternalistic.”
The members who voted in favor of the ban were Democrats Charles Allen (Ward 6), Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3), Vincent C. Gray (Ward 7), Kenyan R. McDuffie (Ward 5), Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1) and Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), and independents Christina Henderson (At Large) and Elissa Silverman (At Large).
In an attempt to avoid police interactions based on the use of flavored tobacco, the council approved a change to the bill Tuesday saying that the law does not give city police the authority to act on their own to enforce the tobacco ban.
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which can inspect D.C. stores to make sure they are not selling flavored tobacco, could still call in police for assistance.
The council carved out one exception — any hookah bars in the city which already have an exemption from the city’s ban on indoor smoking in restaurants will be grandfathered in, and can continue offering flavored hookah for use on their own premises.
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