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Tobacco disparities are still very much with us

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Vivian Jenkins Nelsen
2018 is the 20th anniversary of Minnesota’s tobacco settlement. You may have heard how the settlement helps smokers quit through QUITPLAN Services, or encourages exercise and healthy living. There are many ways communities and people have benefited from the settlement. But one aspect I don’t want to be missed is its impact on an overlooked demographic in Minnesota: our black communities. Settlement dollars are making a dent in the very big problem of smoking among African-Americans.

In 1998, the organization ClearWay Minnesota was founded with a portion of the settlement. (Full disclosure: I used to be its board vice chair.) It was created to tackle the smoking problem statewide. But from early on, it has also focused on the specific communities hardest hit by tobacco’s harms – including African-Americans.

Make no mistake, the tobacco industry targets black people, particularly our youth. Since the 1960s, they’ve put black models in their ads – people who look like us – so even if we didn’t smoke, we would identify smoking with being black.

Lured to a life of suffering and early death

Tobacco companies know the products they sell are addictive and deadly. And they use their incredibly powerful advertising to lure our young people into a life of suffering and early death, to make a profit. That is my definition of evil. My African ancestors were brought to America to pick tobacco long before cotton. We have literally been enslaved to tobacco for hundreds of years. It infuriates me that it continues today.

So why should we care? African-Americans, especially black men, have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate from most cancers. Also, black people are 53 percent more likely to die from heart disease – the top smoking-related killer.

Over the past 20 years, ClearWay Minnesota has addressed this problem from multiple angles. It created QUITPLAN Services, which provides free quitting help to anyone who needs it. It has promoted QUITPLAN in Minnesota’s black publications, and at popular events like Juneteenth Minnesota. It has provided culturally tailored quitting support for Africans and African-Americans, and given grants to nonprofits like NorthPoint in north Minneapolis to build tobacco prevention into organizations already serving black neighborhoods. It also founded a Leadership Institute that trained black leaders and other members of diverse communities to address smoking and improve health in those communities.

But perhaps the biggest way ClearWay Minnesota has contributed is working with black organizers in the fight against menthol. Eighty-eight percent of black smokers smoke menthol tobacco. That’s compared to just 26 percent of white smokers.

Deadly message: appealing to blacks with menthol

The reason is simple. Big Tobacco discovered that menthol flavor appealed to us, so they directed their menthol ads toward us in a big way. Menthols have anesthetic properties that cool the harshness of the smoke. That means for people who smoke them, it’s much easier to start and much harder to quit.

Tobacco companies research what black folks read, where we shop, where we live, and then infiltrates them with their deadly message. I remember, decades ago, tobacco companies would drive around black neighborhoods giving out free Salems and Newports from the backs of vans.

Tobacco companies flood our community with menthol promotions that adapt to the times. When funk was big, they made their ads funky. When hip-hop took over, they used that. They keep their finger on our cultural pulse so they can reach black youth with their “beautiful lies.”

I was proud to help in the effort to restrict menthol in Minnesota cities. By limiting menthol sales to adult-only stores, these deadly products become harder to access and much less visible to kids. I testified in Minneapolis before it restricted menthol last summer – the policy took effect this month – and St. Paul, Duluth and Falcon Heights have also passed policies since then. As a leader of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation and the Minnesota Menthol Coalition, ClearWay Minnesota was an engine driving this effort.

Ongoing efforts to get behind

The problem is far from being solved. Anything but. Tobacco disparities are still very much with us, and there are ongoing efforts all Minnesotans should get behind. These efforts will keep the momentum going, for African-Americans and everyone else: raising the tobacco age to 21, keeping cigarette prices high, and making certain flavor restrictions include menthol. The state also must fund new cessation and prevention programs, so these lifesaving efforts continue once ClearWay Minnesota, a life-limited organization, closes in a few short years.

The cycle of smoking still needs to be broken, but I’m proud of what we’ve done in Minnesota to this point. By using the tobacco settlement to help black communities, we’ve become national leaders in this area. And I hope our community and elected leaders will continue making our people a priority far into the future.

Vivian Jenkins Nelsen is the cofounder of the INTER-RACE Institute, a diversity think-tank at Augsburg University, and the former board vice chair of ClearWay Minnesota.


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