Examining Tobacco Inequities in Black Communities

February is a chance for us to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of so many Black Americans. At the same time, it is also important to remember that there are still obstacles to overcome. We admit, the prevention field has work to do when it comes to creating solutions that address the inequities experienced by neighborhoods with a high or concentrated Black population. These inequities are especially noticeable with the discriminatory practices of the tobacco industry that target black neighborhoods and low-income schools. It is no coincidence that black people in this country die at much higher rates than their white counterparts from smoking-related illnesses.

The tobacco industry knows exactly what it’s doing. While there have been smoking declines in both youth and adult tobacco use, the health gap endures among at-risk communities. Established research indicates that the negative health affects of smoking disproportionately affects racial minorities and tobacco marketing often targets areas with a low socioeconomic status.

The shameless targeted marketing to these communities has put an unnecessary and disproportionate amount of tobacco-related health burdens on black communities. Big tobacco has been known to donate to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as sponsor cultural events, and make contributions to elected officials, community organizations, and even scholarship programs. They’ve long employed blacks to work in tobacco factories as a means of supporting their families. These seeming acts of friendliness to the black community work in contrast to the amount of damage that black families suffer at the hands of the tobacco industry. Tobacco contributes to the three leading causes of death among black Americans: heart disease, cancer and stroke.

While blacks smoke less and begin smoking at a later age than whites, they ultimately have the highest incidence of death rates and shortest survival rate of any race or ethnic group for most cancers. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that “more than 72,000 Black Americans are diagnosed with a tobacco-related cancer and more than 39,00 die from tobacco related cancer.” In fact, lung cancer kills more Black Americans than any other type of cancer.

Black youth are also disproportionately affected by exposure to secondhand smoke. Studies show that among youth ages three to 11, 68% of black children are exposed to secondhand smoke, compared to 37% of white children in the same age range. Secondhand smoke exposure is linked with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), respiratory infections, ear infection, and more severe asthma attacks.

Prevention is key to the success of creating healthier and safer black communities. Blacks have lower cessation rates than whites because they generally have higher levels of nicotine dependence as a consequence of a preference for menthol cigarettes. Public education campaigns are generally well received and effective in decreasing the number of youth who start smoking, increasing the number of smokers who quit, and making tobacco industry marketing less effective. Research from the 2013 Tips From Former Smokers showed that in areas where the campaign was highly visible, the quit attempt among blacks was 60% higher than those areas that received a standard dose of the campaign.

Environmental prevention strategies like price increases are the most powerful anti-smoking factor for all youth, and enforcing laws that prohibit the sale of cigarettes to youth proves to be most effective in reducing smoking among black teens. However, research shows that black communities have not benefitted from the growing number of smoke-free ordinances and laws that have spread across the country. Research indicates that while white, Hispanic and Asian  communities are benefitting from the spread of comprehensive smoke-free ordinances, geographic region coupled with the lack of prevention resources available in black communities have made it so they aren’t benefitting as much from anti-tobacco campaigns. These issues contribute to the continued disproportionate exposure to secondhand smoke for black youth.

Instead of proposals by lawmakers to decrease funding for Tobacco Prevention and Control in our state, we should look at ways to increase funding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends comprehensive tobacco prevention and control programming which includes resources for populations that are disproportionately affected as well as funding of $5.98 per person. Yet, Texas’ current funding levels are at .25 cents to $2.50 a person. An increase in per person funding levels could support public health champions in black communities advocating for their health and safety. It’s time we start investing in these communities.

For more information about tobacco prevention and control efforts in our state, visit TexansStandingTall.org or contact Steve Ross at sross@texansstandingtall.org. If you are interested in bringing change to your community, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council will host its 2017 National Conference on Tobacco or Health Ancillary Meeting on from 5 p.m. to  7 p.m. on Thursday, March 23 in Austin, Texas. For more information on the upcoming conference and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, visit SavingBlackLives.org .