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Lorraine Lathen and Danielle E. McCarthy: Tobacco presents a dual risk to Black lives

Lorraine Lathen and Danielle E. McCarthy: Tobacco presents a dual risk to Black lives

Dear Editor: Recent deaths of Black citizens highlight acute risks of smoking while Black. Eric Garner was killed in a conflict over untaxed cigarette sales. Michael Brown was killed over an alleged theft of cigarillos. Sandra Bland died in jail after a traffic stop over a turn signal escalated when she declined to extinguish the cigarette she was smoking in her car. George Floyd was killed by police responding to an allegation that he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Tobacco-related incidents sparked police interventions that caused these senseless deaths. Tobacco use is still the leading preventable cause of death among African Americans. This threat must be addressed by reducing exposure to tobacco and supporting quitting this addictive behavior in African American communities, not by policing.

The toll of tobacco is already too great among African Americans who are exposed to more tobacco retailers, tobacco marketing and secondhand smoke than are whites. Black people die from smoking at higher rates than do whites, despite smoking less, and trying to quit more often. Tobacco use claims more than 45,000 Black lives annually. The only agent that may eclipse that toll this year is COVID-19, which has already taken roughly 24,000 Black lives. Now that the CDC has named smoking as a risk factor for developing severe illness from COVID-19, which is having a heavier toll on African Americans, it is urgent that we confront the targeting of African American communities by tobacco companies to promote racial equity and social justice.

For decades, the tobacco industry has executed a calculated, menthol-centered strategy to establish presence in African American communities, appropriate African American culture and create a dependency on tobacco funding, according to the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network. In some Milwaukee communities, tobacco retailer density — the number of tobacco retailers per 1,000 people— is 3-4 times higher than in suburban Milwaukee.

The predatory marketing practices of the tobacco industry must be addressed as racial profiling, dismantled, and addressed with action similar to what occurred in California recently when the state Legislature voted to ban ALL flavored tobacco products — including menthol. This decision will enhance the health of California’s African Americans and youth for decades. Addressing menthol on a national scale could save millions of Black lives, and decrease the chances of tobacco-related tragedies involving police.

Lorraine Lathen, M.A.


Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network


Danielle E. McCarthy, Ph.D.


University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention


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