Today marks the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout, an annual event designed to encourage smokers to kick the habit once and for all. For those of us in public health, it’s a pep rally of sorts where we launch cessation tools into the crowd instead of t-shirts, and huddle up to devise new strategies that will give our team the upper hand in the fight to quit. While this year’s theme, “Quit like a Champ” is motivating enough, I have to wonder if Black people, who tend to take the gold in many competitive endeavors, are invited to the winner’s circle when it comes to quitting smoking.
It’s not that Black people aren’t breaking a sweat in efforts to quit. In fact, Black people are more interested in getting to the smoke-free finish line than other ethnic groups. According to the CDC, 74% of Black people report wanting to quit smoking compared to only 69% of whites and 58% of Hispanics. They even try more often to quit smoking. Unfortunately, though, Black people are less successful and have lower quit rates than whites.
When it comes to tobacco, it seems that the fight ain’t fair.
It’s not just the unmet need to succeed in quitting that raises suspicion that the fight might be fixed. While other life-long smokers start their race to addiction by 18 years old, African American youth don’t initiate smoking until much later in life. What’s more is that when Black people do start smoking, they smoke fewer cigarettes per day. Yet, with these “advantages”, Black people are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses than whites.
That ain’t right.
More than 46,000 Black lives are lost to tobacco-related disease each year. This makes smoking the number one cause of death for our community – above homicide, AIDS and car crashes combined.
So, what’s going on? Some reports cite the fact that Black people don’t take advantage of cessation treatments such as medication and counseling. It’s likely, though, that the issue is more complicated.
Are these cessation tools readily available and easily accessible to the Black community? Is a lack of insurance a barrier to receiving assistance? Are we doing our job to tailor cessation resources to Black communities?
Next comes the big question. Could the challenge actually be racial or political? Is there a system of injustice in place that contributes to our difficulty in quitting smoking? Some offer an enthusiastic 'yes' while pointing to the issue of menthol as a primary example.
We know that menthol is a top choice for Black smokers. What may be lesser known is that menthol provides a cooling sensation and makes the harshness of smoking easier to handle for new smokers. For veteran smokers, menthol has been known to make smoking more challenging to quit. Simply put, menthol makes smoking easier to start and harder to quit.
Here is what comes at no surprise. The tobacco industry has disproportionately marketed menthol to Black communities, adjusting the price of the product and associating menthols with Black culture.
And the FDA has recognized the industry’s tactics as effective.
In recent years, the FDA has worked to protect the interests of adolescents by banning flavors such as candy and fruit that attract young people. Their aim? To save lives by preventing youth smoking.
However, when it came to the king of flavors – menthol – the FDA seemed to turn a blind eye. They acknowledged that a ban on menthol would save Black lives in particular, but they still called for further investigation of the matter.
Whatever the challenges, African Americans must stay in the fight to quit smoking – today and every day. Black people can quit like champions, too.
There are resources such as Pathways to Freedom and information about menthol that can help Black people to get on their marks.
It’s time to get energized and win this race. Quit smoking.