No Ifs, Ands, or Butts: Black People Shouldn’t Smoke

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Smoking Cigarettes
African American businessman smoking cigarette

Former President Barack Obama is one of the most admired men in the world. However, there is one thing about him that is not admirable: his smoking habit. Although the president reportedly has kicked the habit, he — and all African-Americans — should know that smoking is particularly hazardous to our health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. CDC reports indicate that smoking causes nearly half a million deaths each year, or nearly 20 percent of all deaths. Smoking causes more deaths than AIDS/HIV, drug use, alcohol use, car accidents, and guns combined.

The ill effects of smoking are well known. The CDC states, “Cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases and reduces the health of smokers in general.” While it is obvious that smoking causes diseases of the respiratory system such as lung cancer, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis, smoking can also cause or exacerbate other diseases. The CDC reports that smoking can increase a smoker’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, hypertension (high blood pressure), asthma, and stroke. Smoking can cause cancer anywhere in the body, including the kidneys, the stomach, the pancreas, and the liver. Smoking can cause rare types of diabetes. Smoking can even affect one’s eyesight.

Smoking can cause problems even before birth. Women who smoke during pregnancy put their newborns at risk for preterm delivery (premature birth), low birth weight, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome (crib death). Moreover, both male and female smokers can experience fertility issues.

Smoking is so dangerous that it harms everyone in the smoker’s vicinity. According to the CDC, secondhand smoke causes nearly 34,000 deaths from heart disease each year in nonsmokers. Even a brief exposure to secondhand smoke can increase a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke by as much as 30 percent. There is no safe amount of exposure to secondhand smoke. Any exposure carries a health risk. The risk increases as the exposure increases.

CDC statistics indicate that 15 percent of Americans, or roughly 37 million adults, smoke cigarettes. At first glance, smoking is not a racial issue.  According to CDC data, the percentage of African-Americans that smoke — 16.6 percent — is equal to the percentage of whites.  Moreover, African-Americans start smoking at a later age and smoke fewer cigarettes than their white counterparts.

Despite smoking less and over shorter periods of time, African-Americans are more likely to suffer serious complications or die from smoking. The American Lung Association indicates that African-Americans are more likely than whites to contract and die from lung cancer. According to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General, death rates for African-American smokers from various cancers outside the lungs, including oral, esophageal, stomach, and pancreatic cancers are higher than those for smokers from all other races. The Surgeon General also notes African-American smokers are also more likely to die from coronary heart disease than smokers of any other race.

An additional issue for the African-American community is secondhand smoke. Because exposure to secondhand smoke is just as dangerous as smoking, secondhand smoke also contributes to the cancer disparities previously mentioned.  According to CDC research, African-Americans are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke and retain higher levels of secondhand smoke chemicals once exposed. The CDC noted that the increased exposure could be related to the fact that African-Americans are less likely than other races to be employed in smoke-free workplaces. Moreover, African-Americans are less likely than either whites or Latinos to have complete bans on smoking in their homes or vehicles. As a result, nearly 70 percent of African-Americans under the age of 12 have been exposed to secondhand smoke.

An additional issue for African-American smokers is the type of cigarettes they smoke. Nearly 90 percent of African-American smokers prefer mentholated cigarettes, a compound that causes the smoker to feel a cooling sensation as the cigarette is smoked. Because of the cooling effect, mentholated cigarettes are favored by beginning smokers. The CDC notes that the cooling effect also causes smokers to inhale more deeply, allowing them to take in more nicotine.

Most Americans know the dangers of smoking. African-Americans are no different.  Compared to whites, African-Americans are more likely to want to stop smoking. However, African-American smokers will face many barriers as they attempt to quit.

Advertising and marketing of cigarettes are targeted toward African-American neighborhoods and are more likely to have stores that sell tobacco products than in white neighborhoods.

Perhaps the largest obstacle faced by African-American smokers in their quest to improve their health is poverty. Many smokers light up in response to stress. For African-Americans, racism and poverty can make daily life more stressful. African-Americans living in poverty smoke at higher rates than other African-Americans. Additionally, for all African-Americans, racism causes stress. Multiple studies have proven that exposure to racism causes African-Americans to smoke as a coping mechanism. One study found that Black college students who experienced overt racism were twice as likely to use cigarettes in the period after the incident. In another study, African-Americans who reported frequent experience with racism were four times more likely to smoke than those that experienced racism less often. The stress of living in racially segregated and impoverished neighborhoods can also cause higher rates of smoking in the African-American community.

Racism also impacts the ability to quit in a less obvious way. Although African-Americans want to quit, few outlets have produced culturally-specific materials to help African-Americans through the process. For instance, because African-Americans are more likely to smoke menthols, cessation materials should address the specific health risks posed by menthol cigarettes. However, there is emerging evidence that smoking-cessation materials that are tailored to the concerns of Black smokers may be effective.

Despite the many barriers to quitting faced by Black smokers, it is imperative that Black smokers commit to quitting. Quitting immediately improves a smoker’s health. Although difficult to find, there are some materials and resources made specifically for African-American smokers who are trying their best to quit. For Black smokers, quitting is a gift to themselves, their families, and their community.

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