HAWTHORNE — Across the country, approximately 45,000 African Americans die each year from smoking-related diseases, which has emerged as the number one cause of death in the black community — surpassing fatalities from accidents, AIDS, diabetes, and homicide.
According to statistics, an estimated 1.6 million black Americans under the age of 18 will become regular smokers, with many choosing to smoke menthol cigarettes which has a minty, throat-numbing additive. About 500,000 will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease.
One of the leading makers of menthol cigarettes is R. J. Reynolds, which manufactures Newport cigarettes, the most popular menthol in the United States. Menthols are the choice of more than 80% of black smokers and more than half of smokers under age 18, according to research cited by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The G.R.E.E.N Foundation, a health advocacy organization, held a town hall about the dangers of tobacco use — particularly menthol cigarettes — on Feb. 16 at the Victory Institutional Baptist Church in Hawthorne. Panelists at the town hall included Karen Beard, Ph.D., smoking cessation consultant; Carol McGruder, co-founder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council; Kathy Jenkins, pastor and public health advocate; Dr. Susan Bradshaw, a community advocate; and Dr. Bobby Shepherd, vice president of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce.
“Nicotine is a devastating addiction that profoundly negatively impacts the health and well-being of residents in the African-American community,” said Ernesta Wright, executive director of the G.R.E.E.N Foundation.
Wright has made it her mission to educate and enlighten the African-American community about the dangers of tobacco addiction. “This town hall is part of a statewide effort to bring awareness of the detriments of menthol and flavored tobacco products in the African American community.”
McGruder, who presented a Powerpoint presentation outlining the hazards of using tobacco, said that cancers, including prostate, breast and bladder cancer have been linked to smoking.
“In the past 20 years, we have lost almost a million African Americans to tobacco,” she said, adding that big tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds have preyed upon the black community for decades. “Cigarette smoking is the number one killer of black people and it is seducing our children into a lifetime of addiction.
Health authorities have said that menthol anesthetizes the throat, helping beginners tolerate the harshness of tobacco smoke, which leads to more smokers becoming addicted.
“We’re part of a movement to ban menthol and flavored tobacco products and Los Angeles is ground zero,” McGruder said. “The tobacco industry is pulling out all the stops to keep us from taking these products out of our communities.”
“Nicotine is not a health problem, it’s a problem of political will, and a social justice issue,” McGruder said. “We are the bargaining chip.”
“These products were dumped in our communities and they were given away for free to children,” she added. “Comedian Dave Chappell was given free cigarettes at the Metro station in Washington, D. C. when he was 14 years old. He said, ‘I’m going to go home and I’m going to learn how to smoke.’ He became very good at it because he can’t make it through a performance without smoking.”
McGruder also said that R.J. Reynolds has paid for bus loads of poor black smokers to go down to Los Angeles City Hall to counter efforts to restrict menthol sales and keep Newports and other menthol cigarettes in the black community.
“There’s reasons why people smoke, like racism and stress which need to be addressed in a comprehensive way,” McGruder added. “We need to educate people and we need to provide services so that our people can get off these products.”
McGruder said the good news is that voters have passed Proposition 56, a tobacco tax that is paying for new leadership in tobacco control. “The Deltas have signed a national resolution supporting getting menthol out of our communities and the NAACP also signed a national resolution and are involved in local efforts to get these products out of our community,” she said.
“It’s about local municipalities stepping in and saying, ‘We’re going to protect our children and communities from these products.’
Shepherd asked the audience: “How many of you have gone to the Kool Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival?
“These are all paid for by the big tobacco companies,” he said. “They give you tobacco products as you walk inside the gate. You went there to listen to jazz, but how many of you were smoking while you were listening? We’re going after retailers and we need your support.”
Beard said that she was a tobacco widow.
“My husband died as a result of being a smoker,” she told the audience. “He smoked for 23 years. I nagged him about smoking, but it was to no avail.
“Nobody starts smoking because they want to die,” said Beard. “When people smoke, they are trying to fill a need,” she said, adding that the smoker may attend a tobacco cessation program where they receive education and information, but added that information doesn’t change people. “We need to show compassion and rather than being critical, ask ‘How can I help this person meet his or her needs?’”
By Shirley Hawkins