Essential California: Would a ban on menthol cigarettes be discriminatory?

a woman stands outside a house
Debra Lewis, 62, has smoked menthol cigarettes for 40 years and has tried to quit repeatedly. The FDA has resumed efforts to ban the tobacco product.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, May 21. I’m Laura Newberry, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

For decades, tobacco companies have faced criticism for targeting the cool mint flavor of menthol products to Black people. Bright-colored advertisements for Newport and Kool menthol cigarettes are common at convenience stores and gas stations in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is resuming its efforts to ban menthol cigarettes — a move that the agency and public health organizations say would save Black lives.


The proposed ban exposes longtime racial inequities of one of the most stigmatizing public health issues in the U.S. Black consumers who stand to be most affected by the proposed change are often left out of the conversation. And tobacco companies and other groups have called the ban discriminatory for targeting products consumers of color often buy.

My colleague Marisa Evans interviewed 62-year-old Debra Lewis, who has been smoking menthol cigarettes for 40 years. She’s tried to quit many times. Even still, the South L.A. resident opposes the ban.

Her job as a live-in aide for people with intellectual disabilities is stressful. When she smokes, she said, “it seems like all of my cares is lifted away at least for the moment, till the cigarette burns out.”

“Are you really going to take away something that kind of calms the people down?” Lewis said. “If you take something that calms my nerves, what am I going to replace with it?”

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the ban could lead to law enforcement agencies targeting Black consumers selling single menthol cigarettes — invoking the memory of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when a police officer put him in a chokehold in New York after he was seen selling loose cigarettes.

This argument has infuriated public health advocates and raised concerns about fear-mongering and misinformation campaigns.

[Read the story “Addicted to menthol: Big Tobacco’s targeting of Black communities could soon end” in the Los Angeles Times]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

A plan to reimagine math instruction for 6 million California students is bringing up questions of equity and fairness. The proposed new guidelines aim to accelerate achievement while making mathematical understanding more accessible to as many students as possible, including those shut out from high-level math in the past because they had been “tracked” in lower-level classes. Critics say the plan will hold back gifted students. Supporters say it will give all kindergartners through 12th-graders a better chance to excel. Los Angeles Times

After many months in lockdown, this summer is the perfect time to hit the road and explore California’s vast and diverse landscapes, both natural and manmade. My colleagues have compiled 40 summer outdoor destinations “that call to us loudly in good times and bad” — from the cliffs of Big Sur to the Napa Valley Wine Train. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


The future of L.A. music might be Rancho Humilde Records, a homegrown independent label that has disrupted the insular world of regional Mexican music. The label champions artists whose heritage is not just reflected in corridos, the gritty Mexican folk ballads that narrate the inner lives of hustlers, immigrants or ordinary people trying to survive, but also in the styles of their favorite rappers from the U.S. The resulting blend is described as “corridos tumbados,” or “trap corridos.” Los Angeles Times

a man with a guitar in front of a car
Musician Natanael Cano at Jimmy Humilde’s home in Downey.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

As Hollywood reopens, studios are trying to lure moviegoers back to theaters. Several dozen studio executives, publicists and journalists gathered in an AMC Century City 15 auditorium in Los Angeles on Wednesday to rally around the nation’s movie theaters after 14 months of streaming, theater closures and release delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles Times


Relatively few people have applied to a $2.6-billion program that aids California tenants in paying rent amid hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The problems have emerged as Gov. Gavin Newsom last week proposed to double the amount available for rent relief to $5.2 billion to pay 100% of back rent owed by many low-income tenants, as well as rent for future months. Los Angeles Times

More than 251,000 Californians signed up on MyTurn to volunteer at vaccine clinics. But only 379 people, many of whom registered in hopes of becoming vaccinated themselves, have been able to book shifts through the state’s problem-plagued website. CalMatters


President Biden signed a law that strengthens federal and local investigations of hate crimes based on race or ethnicity. The new law, which the House and Senate passed with bipartisan support, gained momentum in March after a shooting rampage at Atlanta-area spas killed six women of Asian descent. Los Angeles Times

ICE will close a Georgia detention center where scores of immigrant women have alleged medical abuse. As of April 22, the center facility in Ocilla, Ga., no longer held any immigrant women, after dozens stepped forward to report unnecessary medical procedures conducted by a local gynecologist, which the women said were performed without their consent. Los Angeles Times

More than 90% of California Capitol interns are unpaid. The Democratic-controlled California Legislature is known for progressive policies that often side with labor unions and uplift the state’s working-class residents. But the majority of interns in the state’s Capitol, who represent the next generation of policymakers, are working for free. Sacramento Bee


A judge dropped a murder charge against a Central Valley woman whose baby was stillborn after she allegedly used methamphetamine. Thursday’s ruling marked a major victory in a high-stakes legal fight that advocates said could have had far-reaching implications for women’s rights in California. Los Angeles Times

The California Highway Patrol has increased patrols along some Southern California freeways after dozens of reports of BB or pellet gun shootings destroying vehicle windows. Most of the incidents have happened over the last three weeks on the 91 Freeway, from Riverside to Cerritos. Daily Breeze


An oil patch in Newport Beach may soon become a public park with ocean views. The Trust for Public Land said it has secured an exclusive agreement to buy the largest chunk of undeveloped coastal real estate left in Southern California. Los Angeles Times

aerial view of coastal bluffs
The Trust for Public Land has secured an exclusive agreement to buy a 384-acre area and transform the largest privately owned swath of coastal bluffs left in Southern California into a nature reserve.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

What’s missing in Gavin Newsom’s budget that has public health officials worried. Healthcare advocates in California are pushing back against the governor’s budget plan released last week, saying it follows a dangerous pattern of underfunding local public health agencies despite glaring funding inadequacies exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles Times


A collector of Southern California biker gang memorabilia faced death threats as he searched for one very special set of scrapbooks. The books belonged to Mother Ruthe, who acted as a caretaker to riders who stopped at her house. She fed them, patched up their wounds, let them crash for the night — and she photographed them. But she was dead, and no one knew her last name. Los Angeles Times

Teen girls in Turlock are protesting their school district’s dress code. They showed up to school on Monday wearing midriff-bearing tops, which violates a dress code they say is discriminatory toward girls and is inconsistently enforced. Modesto Bee

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at


Los Angeles: mostly sunny, 70. San Diego: mostly sunny, 66. San Francisco: cloudy, 62. San Jose: cloudy, 68. Fresno: partly cloudy, 73. Sacramento: mostly sunny, 77.


Today’s California memory comes from Rachel Vogel:

In 1968, my parents packed up their Country Squire wagon and drove us across the country to start over in California. We hit a massive blizzard and later stopped at the Petrified Forest. Eventually, we settled in Beverly Hills, then a small town with a single locksmith, bakery, and children’s shoe store — Harry Harris Shoes. On weekends, my parents would treat us to pony rides on a big patch of dirt at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard. There were carnival rides and cotton candy, too. Now, that patch of dirt is the Beverly Center.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to