MALTA — Stewart’s Shops president Gary Dake is weary of a recent state proposal which would mount a sweeping offensive against the tobacco industry.
The retail chain headman, in a recent letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, raised concerns over black market sales and underage smoking increasing vis-a-vis a proposal to effectively ban all flavored and menthol tobacco products, the Times Union first reported.
Stewart’s Shops operates more than 350 stores stretching from Orange County to Rouses Point, two miles away from the northern border with Canada — 43,500 packs of cigarettes are sold per day, 13,000 of which are menthol.
In 2019, Stewart’s Shops backed raising the statewide age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21 as a means of creating uniformity from county to county. A year later, the federal government passed legislation of the like.
Retail chain employees are “extensively trained” in a process vetted by the state Department of Health to avoid selling cigarettes to minors, Dake wrote.
“These unlicensed sellers do not care for their communities the way we and other licensed sellers do,” he wrote in his recent letter. “They certainly will not be as fastidious about age verification as we are. Our fear is that, as a result, banning the sale of menthol tobacco by licensed retailers will actually increase the availability of menthol cigarettes to minors in our state.”
And he’s not alone.
“I couldn’t agree with Gary more,” said Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie.
“I am against banning menthol cigarettes for the same reason Mr. Dake is,” said Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Johnstown, in a statement.
Proposal proponents say the legislation will fight racial disparities and protect public health, especially for children.
Every year, approximately 4,300 New Yorkers under 18 become daily smokers. Menthol cigarettes deter harsh odors emitted during smoking, making it more palatable for one-time smokers to become addicted, health officials say.
Hochul’s proposal intends to target retailers. Purchasing or possessing such products wouldn’t be banned.
Local Republican lawmakers like Tague and state Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, has rebuked the move as anti-business and hypocritical in the wake of marijuana dispensaries opening up across the state.
“I absolutely enjoy having [Stewart’s] in my district and they’re a huge part of it, a huge economic driver of it,” said Oberacker. “We’re picking winners and losers as far as that goes in Albany. It’s a shame that we take that approach.”
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, wants the governor to work with the industry and focus on educational campaigns against smoking rather than an all-out ban.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Cohoes, is supportive of the “principle” of the proposal, but has some concerns about it impacting South Asian ethnic groups.
“I think there needs to be some middle ground,” McDonald said. “I think there needs to be some conversation in particular in regards to hookah, which in the Asian community is a very big item. Hopefully, we’ll work towards that.”
Some opponents have also argued that the menthol ban, as well as a $1 tax increase on all tobacco products, overwhelmingly targets Black smokers. Rev. Al Sharpton and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who was killed by police while selling illegal smokes, have come out against the ban.
When grilled on the subject during a recent press conference in Cohoes, Hochul touted support on the measure from Black clergy members and NAACP state President Hazel Dukes.
“With tobacco use, the leading cause of preventable deaths, Governor Hochul is leading the way to a tobacco-free generation to reduce youth smoking and prevent senseless deaths,” said Hochul spokesperson Justin Mason. “As with any budget proposal, we will work with the legislature on the final details for the best way to protect public health.”
Only two other states have passed similar legislation: California and Massachusetts.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook at Tyler A. McNeil, Daily Gazette or Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.