How Tobacco Companies Are Killing Our Black Teens
Here's what we can do to help
You would have had to have been born yesterday to not know that cigarettes are terrible for you. So it makes sense that, increasingly, the folks who turn to cancer sticks are, in fact, minors who have never known a time when pagers were the height of on-the-go technology, or Tupac wasn’t a martyr.
According to the American Lung Association, 90 percent of all smokers take their first puff before the age of 18, and 99 percent light up by the age of 25.
Rashe Warren is one of those young smokers. The Baltimore native had his first cigarette at 15; just one of the 3,800 teenagers who try cigarettes for the first time each day. Seven years later, he’s still hooked.
“I saw it around me—home, school, outside, everywhere—and wanted to try it," said Warren, now 22 years old. "I kinda liked it, so I just went with it."
Warren says cigarettes seemed like a better alternative to illegal substances like marijuana, but he knows they are dangerous. “I wouldn’t say smoking isn’t gonna kill me, ’cause I know that it can. So I try to lighten up on it, and smoke less than I used to,” he said. He currently smokes 11 cigarettes each day.
He’s right. According to the Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, 1,200 smokers die each day. And cigarette manufacturers are working overtime to replace the dead; each day they entice at least two young people to become regular smokers.
Nationwide, about 20 percent of adults smoke cigarettes; that percentage jumps to 23.1 percent for African Americans. More than 600,000 middle school kids smoke, along with 3 million high schoolers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 43.5 percent of black teens have smoked a cigarette at some point in their young lives, and three-quarters of them continue smoking as adults.
It’s not by chance that they try them. United States tobacco companies spend more than $100 million an hour marketing their products. And it works; upward of 80 percent of underage smokers choose the three brands that are the most heavily advertised. The average young person is exposed to 559 tobacco ads annually; African American adults see 892 ads each year.
A 2011 study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that in California neighborhoods with high schools, as the number of black students increased, the amount of local advertising for menthol cigarettes jumped, and the price of said cigarettes dropped—a combination that entices young folks to purchase mentholated cigarettes in increasing numbers.
“Menthol cigarettes serve as a starter product for youth smoking. We need to protect our youth from a lifetime of nicotine addiction and findings from this study further support a ban on menthol flavor in cigarettes,” said study coauthor Amanda Dauphinee from the Stanford Prevention Research Center.
The Food and Drug Administration’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee found that “menthol cigarettes are marketed disproportionately to younger smokers” and “disproportionately marketed per capita to African Americans.” Indeed, more than four out of every five black smokers ages 12 and older reach for mentholated cigarettes, compared to just a quarter of whites.
Warren smokes Newport Menthols. “Those are the ones I started out with," he said. "I'm not trying to fix something that isn’t broken. Menthols taste better. The other ones are nasty; I take a puff of one and put it down."
But menthol cigarettes do more than provide a minty taste. "Some think that by reducing the irritation to the airways by smoke, the menthol promotes deeper breaths and thus allows delivery of more toxins per breath, although this remains a theory. But according to FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, menthol cigarettes increase the number of children who experiment with cigarettes and the number of children who become regular smokers,” said Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association (ALA).
[ALSO READ: Exercise Helps Teen Smokers Quit]
Regardless of the brand, cigarettes deliver a dangerous drug, one that causes permanent damage in teens. Young smokers can actually end up with lungs that never reach full capacity, which puts them at increased risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) later in life. Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States, and among teens who continue to smoke as adults, a third die prematurely. Black men who smoke are more likely than other smokers to develop and die from tobacco-related cancers, too. This is compounded by the impact of second- and third-hand smoke, which cause cancer and other diseases in those who share space with smokers, especially children.
So it’s important that we encourage the youngest among us to step away from cigarettes. The best way to prevent an addiction is to keep them from starting in the first place. Have frank conversations about the health impacts at an early age, and don’t let family or friends smoke around your children. When you see advertisements, discuss why they are inaccurate and detail how the company is trying to hook them for life.
About half of all young smokers have tried to quit. Warren is among them, but it didn’t stick. “I didn’t want to be addicted to anything, so I tried to quit after a year," he said. "I did it for like a month, and then I found myself smoking another one. I was craving them. I’m definitely addicted."
But there are resources that can help. NotOnTobacco.com and Teen.Smokefree.gov are great places to start for free smoking cessation programs; they can also sign up by texting “QUIT” to iQUIT (47848). And researchers say that students who combine a smoking cession program with an exercise regimen are more likely to kick the habit.
Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the ALA, suggests that change must also come from the top: “States and the federal government are not doing enough to prevent kids from starting such as funding prevention and quit-smoking programs; making all public and work places smoke-free; and increasing tobacco taxes. Time will tell if the government takes that step.
Started smoking as a teen? Kicked the habit young? Share your story in the comments.