Campus leaders and students from 33 historically black colleges and universities across the country gathered at Shaw University on Monday to kick off a campaign to make their schools tobacco free.
The Tobacco-Free HBCU Campus Initiative is a two-day conference featuring workshops on the harmful effects of tobacco, particularly among African Americans, and potential ways to develop public education campaigns that inspire students and faculty to establish tobacco-free policies at their institutions.
“We are really looking toward the students to make this a grassroots issue,” said Odessa Hines, a Shaw University spokeswoman.
The conference at Shaw coincides with “Race to Quit NC,” a statewide campaign this week to help tobacco users quit. The smoking cessation program is sponsored by Duke University, health care systems and health advocacy groups.
Some supporters of the HBCU initiative say the disproportionate number of tobacco-related illnesses and deaths among African Americans is a cause for real concern.
Each year, 47,000 African Americans die from smoking-related illness. Smoking is the No. 1 cause of death among African Americans, surpassing all other leading causes including AIDs, traffic crashes, homicides and drug and alcohol use, combined.
Derrick Sauls, chairman of the department of public health and exercise science at St. Augustine’s University, notes that the tobacco industry specifically targeted African Americans with menthol cigarette advertising. Menthol, a chemical compound extracted from peppermint or the corn mint plant, has a cooling effect to the mouth and throat that masks the harshness of tobacco, making it easier to get addicted and harder to quit.
As a consequence, almost one in five African Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, which are overwhelmingly favored by African Americans and teenagers. Though menthol cigarettes account for about a quarter of the U.S. cigarette sales, they make up about 85 percent of sales to black smokers and nearly half to young smokers overall, according to Truth Initiative, a national public health organization that urges young people to shun tobacco.
The quest to banish tobacco from historically black colleges and universities is the brainchild of Truth Initiative and Dr. Regina Benjamin, a former U.S. Surgeon General. Benjamin was not on the Shaw University campus Monday, but in a press statement she said, “for decades, the tobacco industry has targeted minority communities, particularly African Americans, with intense advertising and promotional efforts.
“As a result of this investment, African Americans suffer the greatest burden of tobacco-related mortality of any ethnic or racial group in the U.S.”
Three of the four North Carolina HBCUs participating in the initiative are located in the Triangle: St. Aug’s, Shaw and N.C. Central University in Durham. N.C. Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro is also taking part.
The four schools, along with the other participating institutions, received grants in March and in September to hire and train student interns to do campus and community outreach about the dangers of tobacco.
Ritney Castine, Truth Initiative’s director of youth activism, said the “spirit of activism and community involvement” of HBCUs makes them an apt incubator to get the word out about the use of tobacco. He noted that the two-day workshops and training sessions at Shaw this week will equip faculty members and students with information based on scientific research, along with innovative tools and techniques to engage their respective campuses and surrounding communities about the issue.
“We are counting on students and specific student organizations to engage the student population,” Castine said. “We want them to get their peers to care about the issue in the same way they care about financial aid, housing and ‘black lives matter.’ That’s how we want them to care about tobacco.”
According to Truth Initiative, more than 1,500 colleges and universities have adopted smoke-free policies. Yet the majority of the 105 HBCUs across the country do not have comprehensive smoke- and tobacco-free policies to protect their students from the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke.
Sauls, the public health professor, called the initiative “a monumental task.” He said there are at least eight retail outlets that sell cigarettes within two blocks of St. Augustine’s campus.
“Two of them are right outside the school gates, 30 or 40 yards away,” he said. “There are six places on New Bern Avenue from Bojangles to Raleigh Boulevard.”