By Portia Reddick White, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
While our nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t forget another public health crisis that is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States – tobacco use. As our kids return to in person schooling, we cannot forget the devastation tobacco use has and will continue to cause. Over the past few decades we have seen a welcome decline in smoking rates thanks to evidence-based policies that prevent young people from starting to smoke and help tobacco users quit. However, the tobacco industry’s long history of predatory marketing of menthol cigarettes has had a devastating impact on Black lives. Today, tobacco use claims the lives of 45,000 Black Americans every year.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’s report, Stopping Menthol, Saving Lives, detailed the tobacco industry’s decades-long targeting of Black communities, especially kids, with menthol cigarettes. The industry’s tactics have included pervasive magazine ads, sponsorship of community and music events, free samples of cigarettes, price promotions in stores in Black neighborhoods, and more. Tobacco ads aimed at women use messaging around fashion, sex appeal, slimness, and independence. Unfortunately, these tactics have worked all too well. In the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers smoked menthol cigarettes. Today, that number is 85%.
In recent years, tobacco companies have also taken advantage of lax FDA oversight to target our nation’s youth and flood the market with e-cigarettes in thousands of flavors like menthol, mango and gummy bear, many of which deliver massive doses of highly addictive nicotine. In 2020, 3.6 million youth in the U.S. – including one in five high school students – were current users of e-cigarettes.
The FDA has the authority to prohibit menthol cigarettes, flavored e-cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and partners have repeatedly urged them to do so. Here’s where things stand on these critical issues:
- Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars: On April 29, 2021, the FDA took a long-overdue step forward by announcing that it will initiate rulemaking to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. This represents truly historic action to protect kids from tobacco addiction, advance health equity and save lives, especially among Black Americans. While the FDA said it would issue proposed rules within a year, we urge the FDA to expedite this time frame and move swiftly to propose, finalize and implement the necessary regulations to turn this decision into life-saving action.
- Flavored e-cigarettes: Given the clear evidence that flavored e-cigarettes attract and addict kids, the FDA should take immediate enforcement action to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes. In addition, the FDA is currently reviewing applications from e-cigarette manufacturers to keep their products on the market. The FDA should not authorize the sale of any flavored products that put kids at risk.
While pushing policy makers to act, we have to do our part by learning as much as possible and finding ways to talk to our kids about tobacco use and how the predatory tobacco industry has targeted them for decades. You can learn more by attending the upcoming virtual conversation ‘Answering the Burning Questions that Parents, Students and Educators Want to Know About Vaping and Tobacco Use’ on August 18. This virtual event experience will feature a series of dynamic speakers including our YWCA USA interim CEO and COO, Elisha Rhodes, for an engaging panel discussion designed to unite, empower, educate, and engage people of color around critical healthcare and human rights issue that are connected to tobacco use in Black communities. Join the conversation and together, we can stop the tobacco industry and protect the health of our kids and communities.
Portia Reddick White is the Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at the Campaign for Tobacco Free-Kids. As a leader in strategy, outreach and political engagement, she leads programs to build, cultivate and sustain relationships with organizations that represent communities disproportionately impacted by tobacco use.
YWCA is proud of our continue our partnership with the Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids, working together to address a major determinant of public health outcomes for youth and communities of color, tobacco use. Please stay tuned for more exciting events and content from our partnership coming soon!