For decades now, it's been common knowledge that using tobacco products is a one-way ticket to a shorter life. The increasing barrage of anti-tobacco advertisements and education programs has driven this knowledge home, and the overall rate of smoking has declined.
But African Americans continue to smoke at a higher rate than the rest of the populace. Twenty-seven percent of African American adults smoke, compared with 19.9 percent of American adults in general, according to the American Heart Association. And the price is high: More than 45,000 African Americans die from smoking-related causes each year, and African American men are more than 50 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than White men.
That sort of disparity demands targeted action, said Yugen Fardan Rashad, coordinator of the African American Tobacco Prevention and Education Network. The network was founded last fall under the auspices of LifeWorks NW, a provider of mental health and addiction services in the Portland area, to directly address tobacco use among African Americans in Portland.
"What we're trying to do is inherent in our name — tobacco prevention and education," Rashad said of the network's efforts, "mostly toward youth and the portion of the general population that does not smoke. The cessation part (of the network's mission) is aimed at those people who do smoke."
Rashad has organized a survey, already in progress, that enlists local youth volunteers to visit stores in North and Northeast Portland to assess the subtle advertising used by tobacco companies to entice young African Americans to smoke.
A meeting is scheduled for noon to 1:15 p.m. today, Feb. 9, at Talking Drum Coffee Shop and Bookstore, 446 N.E. Killingsworth St., to discuss the survey's progress and to enlist more volunteers.
"We're going into the areas where the residents have lower social and economic status," Rashad said. "That's where Big Tobacco is doing most of their promotion. If you look at some of the stores located in inner North and Northeast Portland, you'll see volumes of tobacco ads."
The survey aims to examine 50 stores in inner North and Northeast and then move outside that area to compare the advertising techniques in different communities. The youth volunteers will present their results at a press conference when the survey is completed.
The advertising techniques used to entice new smokers are pretty standard, Rashad said — attractive models with nice clothes and fast cars, implying that smoking is both powerful and sexy. But African American youth face an added, more subtle danger — the aggressive marketing of menthol cigarettes.
Menthol, when added to cigarettes, dilates the passages in the lungs, allowing larger volumes of nicotine to be more rapidly absorbed into the body — and greatly increasing the danger of addiction. In addition, the lungs remain dilated for a period after smoking, making menthol smokers more susceptible to other toxins in the air. The best-selling brand of cigarettes among African American smokers, Newport, is a menthol cigarette.
"Big Tobacco, for years, has been targeting African Americans with mentholated cigarettes," said Rashad. "That's the source of why African Americans get sicker than any other group that smokes. African Americans, statistics say, smoke less than other groups, but get sicker."
The menthol problem, he added, is on top of the other additives that tobacco companies put in their cigarettes to make them more addictive – ammonia, which helps create easily absorbed "free nicotine" in the smoke; fiberglass in filters, which abrades the inside of the lungs so that nicotine is more readily absorbed; and even extra nicotine that is added directly to the tobacco.
The fact that menthol cigarettes are smoked in much higher numbers by African Americans, and that menthol cigarette advertising campaigns are directly targeted at African Americans, add up to a deadly threat to Black communities, Rashad said.
He added that he hopes the publicity generated by the network's survey will help make Black youth aware of the threat behind the glossy ads.
"We're trying to build some capacity in the minds of the community to say, 'Hey look — I know this doesn't rise to the level of homicide or drug dealing or meth, but it's killing us," he said.
"We want to combat the false image that Big Tobacco is selling. When you see these beautiful Black people in these ads — people who smoke don't look like that."