Faith leaders lobby Cleveland City Council for bans on certain tobacco products
Local faith leaders, public health advocates and local health officials are teaming up to advocate for the Cleveland City Council to pass legislation banning the sale of flavored and menthol tobacco products that they say are targeted to Black communities. However, Council President Blain Griffin remains skeptical of the effort.
The Oct. 2 Campaign to End Tobacco Targeting luncheon featured faith and community leaders who discussed the tobacco industry's targeting of Black communities for the sale of flavored and menthol tobacco products and the need to ban the sale of such products in the city.
The leaders included Bishop Tony Minor, senior pastor of the Community of Faith Assembly in Cleveland and the manager, faith communities outreach of the MetroHealth System, Michael B. Coleman, former mayor of Columbus, Yvonka Hall, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, Jazmin Long, CEO of Birthing Beautiful Communities, Cuyahoga County Council member Meredith Turner and Dr. David Margolius, the health director for the city of Cleveland.
Hall told Ideastream Public Media the ban is a natural extension to the city's determination that racism is a public health crisis.
"This is part of that crisis," she said. "So, we have a crisis around mentholated products and the purposeful targeting of our communities. And so what we want is this is our call to action for our faith and civic leaders to come together, to let our city council know that it is important for us to take a stand on this and it is important for them to adopt legislation that will save lives in the city of Cleveland."
Hall added that the meeting was part of an effort to educate the community so they can make the case for the ban directly to their council members.
"I'm hoping that they can take that information back to their congregations, to their neighborhoods, to their families and friends, and then take it back to city council in the way of hosting, hopefully press conferences, attending public hearings, participating in other things that we need in order for the message around health and wellness and why doing this during healthy lung month, which is October, is important," she said.
Bishop Minor agreed, adding that local clergy will meet with council members one-one-one, while also encouraging their congregants to do the same, all with a focus on the health of Cleveland's children.
"We're also going to do community conversations in the community so that not only have they're hearing from us who are activists and pastors, but they're going to begin to hear from everyday people and from parents who are concerned about their children," he said.
City Council President Blaine Griffin said that he welcomes the opportunity to speak with faith leaders and residents and hear their concerns. But, Griffin said he has the same questions and concerns with this proposal that he's had since it was first raised.
"I value their voice, and I think that they always bring great thoughts and great ideas," he said. "A lot of them are very dear friends, and a couple of them have actually reached out to me and asked my position after that meeting and it still stays the same."
Those concerns involve, in part, what Griffin sees as disproportionate treatment of Cleveland residents and businesses versus those in surrounding suburbs and the need to ensure that local health officials are effectively addressing the health concerns they already have before them.
"Last I looked, Cleveland is not the only city that has poor people of color," he said. "So, if this is an issue about targeting poor people of color, then we should make it about the county or the state and not just the city of Cleveland. Just putting a restriction in on the city of Cleveland is, to me, ... short sighted," Griffin said.
"We just don't think it's fair," he said of the impact on local businesses. "Sometimes if you have a business on the Cleveland side of the street and somebody could just go right across the street to Euclid, Lakewood Shaker, Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and buy whatever they want to. Cleveland has all these restrictions. So I think if we are going to make that jump, everybody needs to make that jump at the same time."
However, Bishop Minor said he sees the focus on Cleveland differently.
"I just think it has to start somewhere," he said. "And I think Cleveland must be the trailblazer, right? And it's a moral challenge .... I'm a clergy person. It's a moral challenge. Do we put profits over people? This is not anti-business. This is simply pro-people and pro-health."
Even if Cleveland is the starting point, Griffin said he needs to see more details about how the ban would be implemented and other strategies that could be paired with a ban to drive down tobacco use, such as implementing a smoking cessation education campaign.
"We're going to look at this in a comprehensive way," Griffin said. "And we also want to understand how it's going to be implemented. We don't want to just pass a law, get a headline, everybody pat each other on the backs and then we have unintended consequences or there's no implementation or no outcome."
He added the City Council is also planning to assess how well Cleveland health officials are handling community health concerns they've already been tasked with addressing as part of the city's budgeting process for this year. For example, the city will examine how the city health department is addressing issues such as lead paint problems in the city, rodent infestation and food inspections.
"In the last budget hearing, we felt that food inspection was lacking," Griffin said. "We felt that there was some other things that was lacking. So we want to understand if those things are moving forward and if we're effective in doing those things. You know, health is important and we want to make sure that we analyze if any kind of, you know, class or race or gender or sexual orientation or anybody has been targeted or disproportionately impacted. But we do want to be fair and we do want to be consistent with how we approach legislation."
Coleman, who led the successful charge to ban these products in Columbus, told Ideastream the struggle facing Cleveland advocates is a familiar one.
"We had the same issues in Columbus as well," he said. "And we ended up with the unanimous vote of city council, which took about a year and a half year or so to get there, maybe a year and a half to get there."
Coleman said the key was to take the time to educate both the community and local leaders on the importance of the ban.
"You have to go through it, sit down, educate, share health care data, you know, at the grassroots level, street by street, house by house, and explain it," he said.
It takes time, but education and communication are key to get this accomplished, Coleman said.
"We had to crawl before we walked, walk before we ran. But once we started running, you couldn't stop it."
Community members, such as Karen Cunningham Ball, a teacher at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, said they understand the importance of communicating the risks involved with these products. And for individuals like Ball, this is personal.
"Stopping smoking for me is what literally saved my life," she said, adding she started smoking when she was just 8 years old.
Ball said she only stopped nearly 40 years later when a doctor said her life was at risk after she developed adult-onset asthma and her lung capacity had dropped by more than 40%.
"It was on that day that I quit cold turkey," she said. "It became very clear. It became very real for me. That this could literally be the end. And all of these things ... were brought on by smoking. I smoked menthol cigarettes from the time that I began smoking. And I was heavily addicted."
Ball added that she only smoked menthol cigarettes as did her family and everyone she knew because those products were promoted so heavily in her community.
Ball said she supports the ban because she worries about other community members who might suffer the health impacts from smoking and may not be as fortunate as she says she has been.
"I thank God that I'm here," Ball said. "But I think that people really need to know the impact of the cigarettes, the impact of what it does to your health. And everybody doesn't get a second chance. I'm blessed that I did, but everybody doesn't get a second chance."