Did you know that tobacco kills more African-Americans than AIDS, car crashes, murders, drugs, and alcohol combined? That’s right, COMBINED. Every year, 45,000 African-Americans die of smoking-related illnesses. African-Americans are more likely to die from smoking than whites, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes and make more quit attempts.
African-Americans smoke less and die more. Why is that?
Two things: menthol and targeted advertising.
Let’s start with menthol. Almost 90 percent of African-Americans who smoke prefer menthol cigarettes. Menthol numbs the throat, making it easier to inhale deeply, which may explain why menthols are more addictive than non-menthols. Even though African-Americans make more attempts to quit, they are less successful because menthol makes quitting so much harder.
It’s no coincidence that so many African-Americans smoke menthols.
Tobacco companies have spent decades targeting African-American communities. Beginning in the 1960s, they gave out free samples of menthol cigarettes in African-American neighborhoods, marketing menthol brands as “healthier” because they have a “fresh, minty taste.” Tobacco companies printed up to twice as many cigarette ads in African-American publications, like Ebony and Jet, as they did in mainstream magazines, like Life.
A recent settlement required tobacco companies to print “corrective statements” about the harmful effects of smoking, but African- American media were not included in the deal, even though African- American publications have been disproportionately targeted with cigarette ads.
Targeting African-Americans continues today. Tobacco companies routinely contribute to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year, received a $1 million donation from the tobacco company Altria. When tobacco companies provide financial support to African-American politicians and institutions, it makes it easier for these companies to continue targeting the African-American community.
A 2012 study found that African- American neighborhoods had more advertisements for menthol cigarettes than white neighborhoods, and Newports were cheaper near high schools with higher African- American enrollment.
The amount of money African- Americans spend on cigarettes in one day could pay one year’s college tuition for 2,500 students. Think about what a difference that could make.
What if we decided to stop funding the racist marketing of big tobacco by giving up cigarettes? We may be the Durham built on tobacco, the Durham of the American Tobacco Trail and Liggett and Myers. Durham, however, is also home to Black Wall Street, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the oldest and largest African-American owned life insurance company, and North Carolina Central University, the first public liberal arts institution for African-Americans in the country. This year, consider putting down those cigarettes and taking a stand against big tobacco. Let the tobacco companies know that they have targeted black lives for too long.
For more information about tobacco’s impact on African-American communities, visit naatpn.org. Durham County Department of Public Health offers free smoking cessation classes. Call 919-560-7895 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Natalie Rich is the tobacco health educator for Durham County.