Through her Let’s Move initiative, first lady Michelle Obama has made exercise and healthy eating a “cool” cause célèbre, 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. The disease has since been a topic of storylines on popular black programs like Girlfriends, and the focus of star-studded awareness campaigns.
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 Obamacare, 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. He 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 The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.