For years now, tobacco companies have introduced new products and aggressively marketed them to kids, particularly kids in communities of color. Local leaders have a responsibility to keep their communities healthy and safe, but often find they are unable to do so when it comes to tobacco sales because of preemption (state interference and blocking of local laws). This is especially true in Maryland, where, nearly a decade ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that state law can block local tobacco control laws. This ruling limited the ability of local governments to take action in Maryland, leaving them to wait for the state to act on behalf of the health of individuals and families in their communities.
The Local Tobacco Control Now Campaign
Last year, the NAACP Maryland State Conference launched a campaign, Local Tobacco Control Now, to reverse state blocking of local tobacco laws. People’s lives are at stake. As Willie Flowers, president of the NAACP MD, wrote in the Washington Post, “The effects of smoking have hit my life hard. Upward of 10 of my family members, all of whom were smokers, have died of preventable diseases within the past 20 years.”
Like Flowers, campaign leader and veteran activist Robin Williams believes the state must overturn blocking of local tobacco laws to have a significant impact on the health of Marylanders. “This is the fight to maintain local control of the right to govern and identify solutions that reflect the needs of a community,” she said, emphasizing the need to restore power to local officials.
The fight to maintain local control of the right to govern is not a new one for NAACP MD. The organization and one of its campaign partners, LOCAL Maryland, have worked together before, coming together several years ago to successfully protect local governments’ ability to set a local minimum wage.
Voices for Healthy Kids has been proud to support NAACP MD’s campaign with funding as well as customized training and resources. Whether participating in a training on messaging or using the preemption toolkit, Williams has relied on both to move the campaign forward. “I have learned so much from Voices for Healthy Kids! Those training sessions are exciting for me,” said Williams. Voices for Healthy Kids has helped Williams stay plugged into the work of advocates and partners outside of Maryland, too. “I love to learn what’s happening across the country,” emphasized Williams. “If not, we are in a bubble.” Working with organizations across the country to block preemption efforts, Voices for Healthy Kids is well-positioned to connect Williams to others working toward the same goal.
In summer 2021, Williams launched a digital campaign directed at young people in the state, educating them on what preemption is, what it limits, where these restrictions are most damaging, and what this means for communities in Maryland.
A Long-Term, National Fight
Since its launch, the campaign has worked with other state-based organizations to help Marylanders better understand the state’s and corporations’ ability to block or intervene with lawmaking and its implications for children and families across the state. As Williams described, “We cannot win alone. We are a community. And, coalition is just the same thing as community to me.”
The minimum wage fight and this current effort to repeal state blocking of local tobacco laws reflect a larger threat to local governance, one that extends well beyond Maryland to dozens of other states.
Williams is keenly aware of the larger context in which she is working. According to Williams, “The tobacco law is one particular law, but state interference of local laws will run rampant throughout this country as we see more voter suppression laws, and as we see more people of color and women get elected.” In addition to educating Maryland residents about preemption laws pertaining to tobacco, she is also engaging and elevating others working to sustain the power of local elected officials to govern.
Williams is looking to the next legislative session in Maryland and what is needed to pass legislation that would return authority to local governments when it comes to regulating tobacco.. This will require growing NAACP MD’s coalition and continuing to educate Marylanders about preemption.
To do this most effectively, Williams believes, it will be important to bring in the voices of those who have already been adversely affected by state interference of local laws. Real understanding, Williams said, will only come when you get to share “what people really felt preemption did to them.” She hopes to create a forum through a virtual town hall this fall, convening not only Marylanders, but also individuals from other states who can speak to their own experiences with feeling powerless to protect their health because of state or corporate interference in their communities’ laws.