In recent years, promoting healthy eating to help prevent a bevy of health woes has become the primary focus for health advocates within the black community. In part due to greater media attention and high-profile representatives, other issues have also finally begun to win much-needed attention, including breast cancer and AIDS.
But one of the black community’s most pressing health concerns is rarely the subject of star-studded campaigns or rallies: smoking. Smoking-related illnesses kill more black Americans each year than AIDS, car crashes, murders and drug and alcohol abuse combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Why?
A 2006 report examining the connection between education and health found that “the prevalence of smoking is much higher among lower educated people.” Blacks have lower graduation rates from high school and college than other groups. In addition to education, income is also a reliable indicator of who is more likely to smoke.
A recent report found that although wealthy people are more likely than poor people to engage in moderate drinking, poor people are more likely to smoke.
Studies have also shown that those who have a parent or sibling who smokes are more likely to smoke as adults, meaning that because African Americans are statistically more likely to grow up in a household with a smoker, they are statistically more likely to become smokers. So the black community finds itself caught in a dangerous and deadly cycle.
But there are other reasons black Americans are more likely than other groups to struggle with smoking. According to the CDC, “The tobacco industry has strategically targeted black communities in its advertisements and promotional efforts for menthol cigarettes.” Louis Sullivan, former dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine and secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush, has launched a campaign to eradicate menthol cigarettes.
But battling cigarettes will require more than the activism of a former Cabinet member. Even today, smoking is often depicted in film and television as a cool behavior with few repercussions.
For instance, although pregnancy scares are at least used occasionally as plot devices for dramatic effect — thus signaling that there are some risks associated with unprotected sex — rarely is lung cancer or emphysema used in the same fashion to highlight the risks associated with smoking.
But perhaps the biggest educational challenge currently preventing the eradication of smoking in the black community is not simply that smoking is presented in pop-culture imagery as cool — it’s that as an advocacy issue, it’s not cool. As un-PC as it is to admit, specific charitable and sociopolitical issues can become “in” the same way certain fashion trends can.
Through her Let’s Move initiative, first lady Michelle Obama has made exercise and healthy eating a “cool” cause celebre, with celebs like Beyoncé willing to lend support to her efforts. The AIDS ribbon became ubiquitous at the Academy Awards and other high-profile events in the 1990s, when Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe and other celebrities made it a major issue in the black community.
Part of the challenge may be due to one uncomfortable reality: Everyone has to eat food, so ultimately we sympathize with people’s efforts to eat healthily. Most adults have sex, and since AIDS infections can involve a lack of awareness or a violation of trust in a relationship, or transmission from parent to child, we can sympathize with those suffering. But today, many find it hard to sympathize with smokers.
Even if that’s the case, however, providing the support necessary to help them quit should be a priority for black Americans and all Americans. If compassion doesn’t motivate us, then maybe our pocketbooks should.
Smokers cost employers $6,000 a year more than nonsmokers. Although nonsmokers tend to live longer than smokers — meaning that in the long term, those of us who do not smoke will use resources that smokers who die earlier will not — the costs for smoking-related illnesses are higher, ultimately costing Americans $96 billion a year.
Now that we’re sharing more of each other’s health care costs, thanks to health-care reform, we all have a vested interest in each other’s health choices.
So perhaps it’s time for all of us to rally around a celebrity ambassador who can get us talking about smoking the way Magic got us to talk openly, honestly and strategically about AIDS.
My nomination is the man who is currently the nation’s highest-profile recovering smoker: President Barack Obama. As the world’s most visible black man who struggled with smoking — even after winning the presidency — and as someone many young people in the black community look up to, he could be an incredibly influential advocate.
Obama has the power to convince our community that smoking is not “cool.” Hopefully he will use that power accordingly in the White House and after he leaves it.
Keli Goff is a special correspondent for The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.