By Karen Stokes
Tobacco products are destroying the health of the African American community. Tobacco use is related to cancer, heart disease and stroke, which are the three leading causes of death among African Americans and claims the lives of nearly 47,000 each year, according to the Center for Disease Control.
The Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network (WAATPN) is a coalition comprised of volunteers and organizations committed to reducing the negative health impacts of tobacco in Milwaukee’s African American community. The coalition is concerned about the smoking rate within the community, especially among teens.
The concern is that the African American smoking rate in Wisconsin is at 32 percent, which is above the national norm of 17.5 percent and even significantly above the state rate of 19 percent.
“We want to look at what we can do. One thing is stop young people from beginning to smoke,” said Lorraine Lathen, director of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network. “Another thing is not having access to single cigarettes.”
Most teens can’t go in and afford to buy a pack of cigarettes, buying a single cigarette is more affordable for them. Lathen believes that single cigarettes get teens addicted.
A single cigarette or “loosey” costs $1 or sometimes 2 for $1. A pack of cigarettes costs approximately $7 in Wisconsin.
In a recent survey, 23 percent of teens did not know that buying loose, single cigarettes was illegal.
A Wisconsin Youth Tobacco Survey asked if students ever smoked 100 or more cigarettes in their lifetime.
2016 YTS, Middle school white youth, 5.3%, African American, 14.2%, Hispanic/ Latino, 13.3% – Overall percent=7.2%
2016 YTS, High School white youth, 23.7%, African American, 27.6%, Hispanic/ Latino, 22.7% – Overall percent=25.5%
Alexis 15, a high school student who lives in Milwaukee, says that about half of the students at her school smoke. She herself doesn’t smoke.
“Some kids get cigarettes from their parents and sell them at school to make money. A lot of kids buy cigarettes from other kids,” Alexis said.
“I think African Americans are being targeted as a community because there is a focus on getting youth hooked on cigarettes. We are already disadvantaged economically and socially,” said Marcus Hogans, member of Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network. “Youth see everyone else doing it, they grew up in households where they see their mom smoke, grandma smoke, brother smoke, it becomes a norm.”
About one in five (19.1 percent) African-Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, almost three times the rate as among whites (6.5%).3 The menthol in cigarettes has been found to make it both easier to start smoking and harder to quit according to the American Lung Association.
Research has found that there is a direct correlation between smoking and low poverty rates.
“You won’t find retailers selling single cigarettes in the suburbs, only the center city,” said Edgar Mendez, member of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network.
In 2002 to comply with federal law, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services created the WI Wins Project to reduce the number of sales of cigarettes to minors by doing compliance checks in coordination with the Milwaukee Police Department.
To conduct the compliance checks, 2 minors enter an establishment and try to buy cigarettes from the retailer. If they succeed in purchasing cigarettes, the retailer is served a citation. Presently there is no uniform enforcement for selling single cigarettes.
At a presentation at the National Office of the American Cancer Society that Lathen attended, they were examining the disparities related to tobacco related illness or death. African Americans seem to be disproportionately impacted, diagnosed later and have higher rates of death compared to non- African Americans.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Center for Disease Control, one way to prevent the risk of Lung Cancer is not to smoke. The most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer is to not start smoking, or to quit if you do smoke.
“There are a lot of health issues stemming from smoking including cancer, heart disease and stroke,” Lathen said. “If we could help people not smoke, they can increase their health and well-being. Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death.”