NEW YORK (PIX11) — The debate over whether or not to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and vaping products is creating divisions within the New York civil rights community.

Some, like the mother of Eric Garner, argue it could be just another excuse for police to get into confrontations in communities of color. Other said it’s time to ban these tobacco products popular in communities of color, calling it an issue of racial justice.

There are currently city, state and federal efforts to ban menthol- or mint-flavored tobacco products. In New York, the ban is really picking up momentum at the state level after Gov. Kathy Hochul has suggested a ban be part of this year’s budget.

“We do not need more interactions by police enforcement,” said Gwen Carr. Her son Eric Garner was killed by police after they stopped and accused him of selling loose cigarettes.

Carr said a ban on menthol-flavored tobacco products like Newports would lead to more interactions like the one that killed her son.

“We are addressing the criminalization of the medical ban,” Carr explained Thursday. “We are not saying it is wrong in the medical field, we are worried about what is going to escalate into.”

Carr was joined on the steps of City Hall by other family members of those who have lost loved ones to the hands of the police, including the family of George Floyd. They represent a powerful coalition pushing back against city and state efforts to restrict menthol.

But other civil rights advocates rallied a short time later near One Police Plaza.

The Rev. Kirsten John Foy’s Arc of Justice group, along with NAACP leaders and some New York City Council members, argue a menthol ban is about saving Black and brown lives — not putting them in more danger.

“They want us to focus on the boogeyman police,” Foy said. “Not the boogeyman of cancer and COPD and heart disease.”

Those at Foy’s rally made the case that the idea of a menthol ban leading to more over-policing is being spread by big tobacco for fear of losing money. Foy and others pointed specifically to language Hochul included alongside her proposed menthol ban that would make it illegal for police to stop people over the exchange of tobacco.

“So the big lie is that the police are going to be coming into our community if we get rid of menthol cigarettes,” said Hazel Dukes, leader of the NAACP of New York. 

Foy said many of New York’s most prominent civil rights voices were not on the same side of this issue because they had all been lied to over the years by big tobacco.

“We are family, and we are talking to our family. Big tobacco is not in our family, and we are talking to our family about the liar at the door,” Foy explained.

Similar efforts to ban menthol-flavored tobacco at the city level were rebuffed about a year and a half ago amid a similar debate.