The 2014 death of Eric Garner spurred Black Lives Matter protests. In fact, Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry for the movement designed to combat overly aggressive police behavior. Garner was approached by police for allegedly selling “loosies” — individual cigarettes sold without the proper tax stamps. He died after being held in a chokehold.
The ensuing national debate — if you can call a series of protests, riots and football-game kneeling a debate — has been remarkable given the degree to which both entrenched sides have avoided discussing the main causes of the problem.
Conservatives instinctively defend the police while ignoring the way police unions (which often back Democrats, by the way) protect bad behavior and bad policies in the same way as teachers’ unions make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent and misbehaving “educators.” Progressives would have us believe that such problems are entirely the product of racism.
And progressives are unable to answer the obvious question: What were police doing arresting someone for possibly selling a few loose cigarettes? It’s simple: New York City and other liberal locales are intent on regulating virtually every aspect of human behavior. The more piddling rules they pass, the more those rules invite potentially dangerous police encounters.
Think of that in the context of New York’s leftist Mayor Bill de Blasio, a harsh police critic who recently held a press conference with the city’s police leadership announcing a crackdown on that budding “menace” of people who ride environmentally friendly electric-assisted bicycles. We’ve reached the point where it’s impossible to tell which things the professional uplifters want to subsidize — and which things they want to punish and ban.
This brings us to the nation’s other progressive bastion, the San Francisco Bay Area. One can count on that region’s progressives to protest some of the questionable policing techniques that have been in the news in recent years, but they can’t seem to comprehend the way their own policies contribute to the problem.
For instance, San Francisco, Oakland, Novato, Contra Costa County, and elsewhere have recently approved far-reaching bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products. The definition of tobacco is broad and includes electronic cigarettes, which contain nicotine but not tobacco. They also ban many smokeless tobacco and snus — other products that former smokers use to help break a dangerous habit. But more on that point in a moment.
Throughout most of the Bay Area, then, it will soon be illegal to sell a wide range of otherwise legal and popular products. The main target is menthol cigarettes, which are popular in the African-American community. I attended an Oakland City Council meeting where the ban was debated. Several residents raised that very point — that police might increase their presence in city neighborhoods to combat the sale of now-outlawed cigarettes. Council members dismissed the concern by arguing that it’s only illegal to sell menthol cigarettes, not to possess them.
Well, yes, but consider the process by which people will come into their possession. Menthol cigarette sales are banned in two of the largest area cities and a major county. This means that residents who don’t switch to other, equally dangerous forms of tobacco will have to drive outside of the area to buy them. Many will buy them in bulk and — you got it — sell “loosies” on street corners and cartons out of their car trunks. Police will set up sting operations and … there you go.
Bay Area politicians are inviting problems. Once again, we see that despite its façade of humanitarianism, progressivism is mainly about using the force of government to crack down on the things progressives simply don’t like. And they really don’t like Big Tobacco, so other progressive ideas get tossed aside as well.
The attack on tobacco use is based on some legitimate public-health concerns, of course. You’d be hard-pressed to find any sentient being who doesn’t understand that smoking combustible cigarettes is a sure path to an early grave. But California’s health officials refuse to acknowledge what Great Britain’s main health agency has found — that vaping is 95 percent safer than traditional cigarette smoking. The Brits urge policymakers to encourage vaping.
California officials, and Bay Area zealots in particular, consider vaping just another dangerous form of cigarette smoking. Bay Area “vapers” will find it particularly difficult to buy e-cigarettes and vaping liquids. If it’s too hard to find them — or if they don’t want to head to the streets to buy them illicitly — they might stick with the far-more dangerous smoking habit. That undermines public health. But there’s no reasoning with people on a crusade. Next summer’s referendum of the new San Francisco law will determine if city residents are as unreasonable as their leaders.
It’s pretty ironic, though. Bay Area cities have long been proud — to the point of smugness, actually — about their progressive approach toward “harm reduction” in the area of sexual behavior and drug addiction. Harm reduction calls for practical strategies that reduce the ills of the bad behavior rather than insisting that those engaged in the bad behavior go cold turkey.
It’s why San Francisco has touted “safe sex” rather than abstinence and needle-exchange programs rather than a police-driven drug war to deal with the city’s heroin-addiction problem. From a public-health standpoint, these strategies are quite effective. They are also wise from a taxpayer standpoint, given that it’s such a waste of police resources to focus on social ills rather than serious crime.
But just as Californians have voted to legalize marijuana for recreational uses, some of its biggest cities are determined to send tobacco sales into the black market. Doesn’t this unmask the hypocrisy of the Left? They want to ban, arrest, prosecute, and harass. And they won’t have any idea what happened the next time someone is tragically killed or injured as they peddle black-market menthol cigarettes in a Tenderloin alley.
(Here is a white paper that my R Street Institute colleague Carrie Wade and I wrote about these Bay Area tobacco ordinances.)
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.