Tobacco use continues to impact Tenn. communities of color

Menthol cigarettes are used at higher rates in African American populations due to decades-long marketing campaigns by large tobacco companies. (photo courtesy of Adobe Stock)

The American Cancer Society recently held its annual Great American Smokeout event, where thousands of people across the country decide to quit smoking.

Advocates say Tennessee continues to lead the nation in smoking rates and cancer-related deaths, especially among communities of color.

They’re calling on lawmakers to protect those communities by passing strong tobacco-control legislation.

Emily Ogden, state government relations director for the American Cancer Society, said Big Tobacco has targeted Black communities for decades, particularly through marketing menthol cigarettes.

She contended that’s contributed to health disparities that never been more clear than during the coronavirus pandemic, as research has shown people who smoke or who used to smoke are at higher risk for COVID-19 illness and other infections.

“However, there’s lots of evidence that smoking increases the risk of other types of viral lung infections,” Ogden said. “And this increase in risk is due to changes in the person’s immune system and damage to the cells lining the airways and the lungs.”

According to the American Lung Association, the rate of new lung-cancer cases is around 69% among Black Americans in Tennessee, significantly higher than the national rate of 61%.

Around 20% of Black Tennesseans say they are smokers. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, Black Americans are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases, especially heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Ogden indicated state lawmakers could take steps now to keep residents healthy.

“The first would be to have regular and significant increases on tobacco taxes on all tobacco products,” Ogden said. “Tennessee hasn’t raised the tobacco tax sine 2007, and it’s currently at 62 cents per pack.”

She added the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns of public spaces have people thinking about what healthier gatherings could look like when the public health crisis ends.

“So one of the things that we’ve seen actually in Nashville, just in the last couple of months, is an effort by local musicians to encourage bars and restaurants that are opening back up after being closed down from COVID to open smoke-free,” Ogden said. “And this is kind of more private thing. We’re going to appeal to people’s private business interests.”

Currently, Tennessee puts no state money into tobacco prevention and cessation programs, which are primarily funded by payouts from Big Tobacco.

Ogden believes lawmakers should provide funding in the next state budget to fund evidence-based programs to help residents quit smoking.