For their vision, leadership, and moral conviction, Minnesota State Senator Jeff Hayden and Representative Rena Moran were awarded the Karen Bass Visionary Leader in Tobacco Control Award. Inaugurated in 2010, the award was first presented to, and subsequently named after, Congresswoman Karen Bass, who was then serving as the first African American woman Speaker of the California State Assembly.
Bass’ strategic work addressed the tobacco control needs of California’s Black community, significantly advancing the agenda to address tobacco-related health disparities. Senator Hayden and Representative Moran have risen to the forefront in pushing for local and state action to regulate the sales of mentholated and flavored tobacco products in their State of Minnesota.
The awards were presented at the annual conference of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, held in December in Los Angeles, California. Hayden and Moran made history last year as they became the first legislators to appropriate funding solely designated to create interventions to help Black smokers overcome their addiction to mentholated cigarettes. For decades the tobacco industry engaged in targeted marketing to the African American community, which included giving away free cigarettes to inner city children, aggressive tailored media campaigns, sponsorship of community events, far-reaching influential philanthropic contributions, and a sustained focus on relationship building with Black leadership groups.
As a result of the tobacco industry’s pervasive presence in African American communities, the use of mentholated cigarettes among African American adult smokers jumped from 14% in the late 1960s to more than 84% today. Among African American adolescent smokers the rate is even more alarming, where more than 95% of them use mentholated tobacco products. A recent Stanford University study documented that in neighborhoods with high percentages of underage African American students, mentholated tobacco product advertising increased and product pricing decreased.
More than 45,000 Black people continue to die every year from tobacco related diseases, which is more than all other preventable causes combined. Unfortunately, due in large part to the tobacco industry’s strategic political and philanthropic manipulation of Black leadership, silence and political inaction have become the norm when it comes to confronting the number one killer of Black people.
In June 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to prohibit in cigarettes the use of characterizing flavors such as menthol. Though other countries, including Brazil, Canada, and Ethiopia are considering or taking regulatory actions to ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, the FDA has yet to make a move.
However, Sen. Hayden and Rep. Moran have joined a small but bold group of Black elected officials who have taken a stand and are stimulating national dialogue on this issue. The AATCLC salutes these Champions who are bringing this message to their colleagues and the nation, while implementing local policies that take direct action on dealing with this critical and deadly issue.