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. Thanks in part 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.
As recently noted in Newsweek, “Each year, smoking-related illnesses kill more black Americans than AIDS, car crashes, murders and drug and alcohol abuse combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” So why is smoking still killing so many black people, and why don’t more people, black or white, care?
A 2006 report examining the connection between education and health around the world found that (pdf) “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 black 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.” Menthol cigarettes are more addictive than other types of cigarettes, so much so that the use of menthol has caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which has now launched an investigation.
Dr. 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.
A multiyear study published in the journal Psychological Science found that movies influence the sexual behavior of teens, including condom usage. This means that parents are not the only ones who shape teens’ attitudes and behaviors. It spotlights the important role of culture and cultural figures in reinforcing some positive behaviors and discouraging undesirable behaviors.
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.