When Big Tobacco Invoked Eric Garner to Fight a Menthol Cigarette Ban

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With San Francisco banning menthol cigarettes last year, and the Food and Drug Administration considering a nationwide ban, it seemed like the time was ripe for New York to follow suit.

Then Reynolds American, the tobacco giant, got to work. It enlisted the Rev. Al Sharpton and his group, the National Action Network, as well as the boss of the Manhattan Democratic Party, Keith L.T. Wright, a former 12-term assemblyman from Harlem, to fight the ban proposed by the City Council.

In closed-door meetings with Council members in May, they argued that a ban would disproportionately affect black New Yorkers. They invoked Eric Garner, who was killed on Staten Island by police officers enforcing cigarette regulations, and suggested such encounters could increase if menthol cigarettes were to go underground.

The bill has since been set aside.

The effort to stop the menthol ban was centered on a longstanding but increasingly prominent and effective strategy for waging political warfare in New York: Deploy the concerns of black residents as a weapon to sway the Democrat-heavy Council toward a stance favored by corporate clients.

The approach has been a central part of a lobbying effort on behalf of the fur industry, which is working with black pastors to knock down a proposed ban on fur sales in New York, and a feature of campaigns mounted by lobbyists for technology firms.

A similar approach has even been deployed in efforts that are arguably against the interests of black New Yorkers. Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, sought prominent black figures to lobby against a state bill to end New York City’s specialized high school exam.

Many critics, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, believe the test is discriminatory and has effectively blocked black and Latino students from elite public schools like Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science. The legislative session ended in June, with the bill never reaching the floor for a vote.

“Every smart and strong lobbying strategy includes coalition building,” said James E. McMahon, a lobbyist who represents both Reynolds and the Fur Information Council of America, a national industry group.

He drew a parallel between the lobbying campaigns on behalf of both clients, each of which sought to amplify concerns in the African-American community over proposed product bans. “Having a diverse coalition only brings strength to the cause,” he said.

Money has been flowing to New York lobbyists as never before, with most of the increase coming in New York City. The total city revenue reported by all firms reached nearly $110 million in 2018, more than double the amount in 2011.

Some of the largess is also directed to activist and nonprofit groups with views that align with a particular corporate interest. That spending is not always tallied in lobbying reports, though it can be seen and heard at City Hall.

“It felt like Uber, Lyft and Via had every single lobbyist in the city,” the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, said in an interview. They made a similar social justice case for their services, he added, by highlighting the history of yellow cabs refusing to pick up black riders.

So, too, did Airbnb; it enlisted a Harlem pastor, the Rev. Johnnie Green, to champion home sharing as a benefit in low-income neighborhoods. The company, in turn, sponsored his events.

Mr. Green is also among those backing Mr. Lauder’s specialized high school campaign, known as Education Equity. The campaign, which has several lobbying firms on its payroll, has made thousands of dollars in contributions to Mr. Green’s nonprofit, Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, or M.P.A.C., a spokesman said.

Image The Rev. Johnnie Green helped organize a caravan of six buses from Harlem to a City Hall protest against a proposed fur ban, but would not say who paid for the buses.
CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

“White firms use us for good and bad. That’s how it works,” said Jacqui Williams, a veteran lobbyist, who is black. She added that the approach is not limited to the African-American community. “They do it to every culture, in my experience,” she said.

At least four lobbying firms have been pressing city and state officials on behalf of the fur industry, including Davidoff Hutcher and Citron, led by Sid Davidoff, a lobbyist and local political fixture since the John V. Lindsay administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mr. Davidoff’s firm, a mainstay on the city’s list of highest-compensated lobbyists, is also one of three representing Reynolds American — a fact he acknowledged after The New York Times asked him about the meetings with Council members that Mr. Wright, one of his lobbyists, organized with Mr. Sharpton’s group. Mr. Wright was not registered to lobby on the issue at the time.

“I’m glad you pointed it out,” Mr. Davidoff said of the unregistered lobbying. “You’ll save us money on additional fines.” (Mr. Wright did not respond to requests for comment.)

Reynolds also employs the firms of Bolton-St. Johns and Mr. McMahon’s J.E.M. Associates N.Y., records show. But according to Council members, its most effective advocate in defusing the Council’s zeal for a menthol cigarette ban has been Mr. Sharpton.

“The issue to me is criminal justice and that is what N.A.N. is all about,” Mr. Sharpton said in a telephone interview, referring to the National Action Network. He added that a ban would apply to cigarettes disproportionately used by black smokers, potentially creating an illicit market and increasing encounters with the police. “I think there is an Eric Garner concern here,” he said.

The proposed legislation, which would apply to menthol cigarette sales but not possession, would also ban flavored e-cigarettes. While the National Action Network opposes the menthol ban, the N.A.A.C.P. testified in support. One of its members wrote a joint op-ed with Chirlane McCray, Mr. de Blasio’s wife, who is black, urging its passage.

“For me, this is a no-brainer: It’s killing people,” Councilman Fernando Cabrera, the sponsor of the menthol bill, said.

Public health advocates and researchers have chafed at Mr. Sharpton’s position and pointed to his longstanding ties to Reynolds American. National Action Network members have opposed efforts to ban menthol cigarettes around the country, including in California, leading to some discord within the group.

“I understand the concern about black men; I am a mother of two black men,” said Dr. Valerie Yerger, a professor in health policy at the University of California, San Francisco. “But we’re not talking about the black people being killed every year from tobacco.”

Mr. Sharpton acknowledged that the cigarette maker had made contributions to his group for two decades, and he did not dispute that the company regularly buys tables for as much as $15,000 at its events, where political leaders crowd to speak.

“Ten thousand dollars or $15,000 would not influence us either way,” he said, adding that his convention brings in more than $1 million from corporate and other sponsors. “This is not about money.”

He declined to say how much in total his group had received from Reynolds American. A spokeswoman for the company described it as “a proud sponsor of the National Action Network” but declined to provide figures for their contributions.

If the effort to ban menthol cigarettes has flown mostly under the radar in New York City, that could be about to change: Faced with opposition from Reynolds and Mr. Sharpton, national antismoking advocates are promising to pour money into the fight.

So far, the fight over fur has been far more conspicuous.

Mr. Johnson, the Council speaker, said he felt strongly about what he saw as the cruelty of the fur trade, and called for a ban on fur sales in the city. His push surprised and energized animal rights activists, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the local animal group New Yorkers for Clean and Livable Streets. Both groups are working with well-connected lobbyists.

During a hearing in May, dueling groups of protesters shouted slogans at each other.

The fur industry has spent heavily on poured money into lobbying and a marketing effort. More than $250,000 had been spent on mailers and other messages opposing the proposed fur-sale ban.

The debate appeared to shift in May when Mr. Green, the Harlem pastor who spoke in favor of Airbnb, organized members of his congregation and others in six buses for a protest at City Hall against the ban.

A Twitter post urging congregants to “come get on the bus” did not mention fur. The post has since been removed.

Mr. Green argued, as did a lobbyist for the furriers, Charlie King of Mercury Public Affairs, that the ban ignored the importance of fur in the black community, particularly among churchgoing women.

In an interview in the sanctuary of his church, Mr. Green said his congregation did not pay for the buses — or the 300 turkey sandwich lunches provided to the protesters — and refused to say who did. Nearby in the sanctuary sat an employee of SKDKnickerbocker, one of the registered lobbyists for the Fur Information Council of America. (The firm did not pay for the buses, an SKDKnickerbocker spokesman said.)

A person with direct knowledge of the fur industry efforts said that Mr. King of Mercury had arranged for a payment to M.P.A.C., Mr. Green’s group. When asked if he paid the preacher group, Mr. King released a statement saying, “I don’t know who contributes to M.P.A.C., but they should get donations for the amazing work that they do.”

Mr. Green declined to say who funded the excursion. “Who paid for it, how it was paid for, how much is inconsequential,” the pastor said. “What’s important is that people who needed to have food had food. People who were interested in advocating against the ban on fur got on the buses.”

“Our people like fur,” Mr. Green added. “I think that they underestimated our opinion on this matter.”

Indeed, the argument caught supporters of animal rights off guard.

“Whether or not it was a lobbyist that tried to create that narrative, it is a narrative,” said Matthew Dominguez, a political adviser for Voters for Animal Rights. “We will not tell them they are wrong.”

At the same time, Voters for Animal Rights has mounted a counteroffensive. A group board member, Jabari Brisport, wrote in an email that he “found it insulting that the fur trade would use my community as a smoke screen to defend this exploitive industry,” and sought other black animal rights activists to help formulate a response.

Mr. Johnson said that while some black New Yorkers may dislike the proposed fur ban, it was hearing from furriers who would lose their jobs that gave him pause. Still, he added that he remained committed to the ban.

“No community is monolithic, and there are people on both sides of the issue,” he said.

Mr. Green suggested that a ban on fur could sour some black voters on Mr. Johnson in his all-but-declared 2021 mayoral run.

“If what’s important to us is not important to you,” the pastor said, “then when that time comes and you seek our support, it will not be there.”

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