Home Sponsored Big tobacco targets Black communities; advocates push back

Big tobacco targets Black communities; advocates push back

Pastor Teresa Thompson-Boyd, Michael Campbell.

Special sponsored content provided by Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network.

Like many threats to health and wellbeing, tobacco disproportionately affects Black communities in Wisconsin and across the country. In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services estimates that nearly half of all deaths of Black people in the state are caused by cancer, heart disease and stroke – all closely related to smoking.

Health advocates say that’s the direct result of targeted efforts by the commercial tobacco industry to get Black people addicted.

“You don’t see tobacco advertising in other areas as you do in Black communities,” says Michael Campbell, coordinator of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network (WAATPN). “There’s a lot of focus and a lot of money spent on targeting in that way.”

Some estimates say the tobacco companies spend as much as 10 times more on advertising and marketing in Black neighborhoods. Besides that, the focus in Black communities has historically been to sell more products with menthol, a mint-flavored numbing agent that makes the smoke go down easier. Estimates range from 75 to 90 percent of Black smokers use menthol products.

“(Menthol) makes it easier to take in, then of course it’s more addictive because you’re able to take in more of it,” Campbell says. “Most of the kids start with the menthol product. It’s easy to take in and then it’s harder to quit. There’s your decades and decades of usage coming out of that. It’s a huge problem, but it’s something that people are more aware of as we have these conversations and let them know about what’s going on and how that targeting works.”

The United States outlawed flavored cigarettes to avoid kids getting addicted – but menthol isn’t considered a flavor.

An effort is underway to change that.

“The FDA even projects that if menthol can be banned, 300,000 to 500,000 lives a year can be saved. And most are African American lives,” Campbell says.

Smoking impacts Black lives in more ways than an individual’s health. For one thing, it’s expensive. That’s one reason many smokers have mentioned for wanting to quit in focus groups that Campbell has facilitated.

“They talked about how expensive it is, how much of a burden it’s causing financially, just not on their health, but if you ended up getting all these other health related issues, that increases the cost of your health care in addition to the money that you’re spending on actually buying the tobacco products themselves,” Campbell says.

Then there’s the issue of police interaction.

“Tobacco presents a dual risk in Black lives,” says Pastor Teresa Thomas-Boyd, co-chair of the Menthol Subcommittee at WAATPN. “Eric Garner was killed in a conflict over untaxed cigarette sales. Michael Brown was killed over alleged theft of cigarillos. Sandra Bland died in jail after a traffic stop over a turn signal that escalated when she declined to extinguish the cigarette that she was smoking in her car. And George Floyd was killed by police responding to an allegation that he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.”

Thomas-Boyd notes there was a lot more going on in each of those cases, but tobacco was a common thread.

Efforts are underway to combat tobacco use in Black communities. WAATPN hosts “No Menthol Sunday” every year in May, for example. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, made all public housing smoke-free a few years ago. WAATPN and other organizations are working to learn more about what resources people need to quit – as most want to. 

“Most (older Black smokers) want to quit. They’re having troubles finding the right tools that they need to quit,” Campbell says. “Some of the things they talk about are just having access to cessation services within their (public housing) facility so that they don’t have to leave to go somewhere to get that help and that support. We’re going to continue developing that relationship and working with them.”

In addition to that targeted work, Campbell and Thomas-Boyd say open and honest conversations can go a long way.

“I think it’s important that we emphasize that we need to have conversations,” Thomas-Boyd says. “We have to make a different kind of noise.”

“It’s becoming a more urgent conversation,” Campbell says. “Most people who we’ve talked to and through the studies we’ve done, they want to quit. It’s just very difficult to do it because of the addictive nature of the nicotine and the menthol together. I think with COVID it did create another level of urgency because that was related to the lungs, so it just increased the risk and that kind of was a wake-up call for a lot of people about how all these things are connected.”

Get free medications and assistance to quit commercial tobacco and/or vaping by calling 1-800-QUIT NOW or text “READY” to 34191. Teens who want to quit vaping can also get free help through Live Vape Free by texting “VAPEFREE” to 873373.