Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids looks to educate, inform

“Smoking is something our community needs to address because as it currently stands, tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death for African Americans in this country,” Richardson (right) said. Photo courtesy of The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) will be ruling to permanently ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars in August.  

Researchers estimate that prohibiting menthol cigarettes would save up to 654,000 lives within 40 years, including the lives of 255,000 Black Americans. Black Americans represent over one-third of the lives that would be saved. With menthols addictive nature and aggressive marketing towards people of color, menthol tobacco possesses a significant health risk that demands immediate attention. 

The proposed rule represents an important step to advance health equity amongst Black Americans and address tobacco-related health disparities. 

Yolonda Richardson, new President, and CEO of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, spoke with the Atlanta Voice to discuss the importance of staying aware and why the ruling is important to Black communities in the United States.  

The Atlanta Voice: Why is the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids important, especially for Black communities? 

Yolanda Richardson: Smoking is something our community needs to address because as it currently stands, tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death for African Americans in this country. I’ve been with the campaign for the last 14 years and most of that time, I worked on global tobacco control and other health issues. In the U.S., our primary focus remains on tobacco control since 1996. The work we have been doing in the U.S. started with the work we did to help pass the national tobacco control law in 2009, it was one of the first bills then President Obama signed. The bill gave the FDA the authority to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products, which is kind of amazing to think it had gone unregulated up until that law passed. It’s a critical piece of legislation and we’ve been working nonstop since to make sure it’s implemented.  

AV: Why is smoking menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products so devastating to Black communities? 

YR: Smoking rates among African Americans are roughly the same as among other Americans, but what’s devastating for our community is that menthol, which is the flavored cigarette of choice for African Americans, was exempted from that 2009 law. This created an opportunity for the tobacco industry to further exploit communities of color and to push their products into our communities spending billions of dollars on advertising, giveaways, sponsorships, cultural events, and even disproportion of pricing advantages in the African American community. Now more than 85% of African Americans who do smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes, so it was a devastating loophole for our community. All the other flavored cigarettes were banned at the time and menthol got a special exemption. We know that this happened because the tobacco industry was behind the scenes making sure this exemption was in place. Therefore, our community remained vulnerable when it came to menthol cigarettes and other flavored cigarettes were in fact banned. Since then, we have been working to close that gap and close the loophole. A couple of years ago, we were working vigorously to get a national law passed to close that gap and it also demanded to close all flavored E-cigarettes. The other exemption from 2009 was flavored cigars, which for our community, are smoked by Black teens.” 

AV: What kind of health impacts does smoking menthol cigarettes have on our communities? 

YR: Menthol has major health impacts on our community such as increased cardiovascular disease, asthma, and more. This is our and my number one priority as the new President and CEO to have the FDA pass this new rule that would eliminate menthol as a flavoring of cigarettes, and you can imagine it remains a big fight with the tobacco industry, but we are working hard to get the rule out the door. The FDA seems poised to release the rule and we’re just waiting for that to be the case. 

AV: If the FDA officially bans menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, what other work will the campaign continue to focus on? 

YR: We will continue to advocate with the administration through Medicaid, Provident Insurance, and maybe some additional services to make sure African Americans have access to sensation programming to make sure those folks who want to quit, now that they aren’t going to be able to get their flavored cigarettes, are able to have the resources and services to help them quit. We are really committed to making sure those services are available and accessible to Black people.  

YR: The other part of the work we really need to focus on is a next step and an additional step to ban flavored E-Cigarettes. Vaping kind of threw a wrench in our plans in a sense we were able to lower teen smoking. We are working hard on vaping because in many ways, vaping is even more problematic because it has gone unregulated since 2007. The 2009 law requires before any new tobacco products can come into the market, they must be pre-cleared, but the FDA hasn’t exerted that authority and therefore the market has gotten really flooded. They’re in the midst of looking at some applications now, but we really want to press them to review those applications so we can get E-cigarettes out the market. The rate of E-cigarettes has now exceeded the rate of teen smoking. The tobacco industry would say it’s to help give an alternative to smoking in existing smokers, but they have made every effort to market these products to kids. They have all kinds of flavors that cater towards a younger audience that wouldn’t resonate with adults like bubblegum, choco-berry this, and so many more. The real big issue is they aren’t regulated so the nicotine levels are much higher than are in cigarettes because there aren’t any limits on it. 

AV: How are you guys feeling about the upcoming ruling by the FDA? 

YR: The rule has been drafted almost a year ago. We have been working closely with people from the FDA to continue to pressure them on getting the rule released. There’s been a scientific review that shown how deadly menthol is to smokers, so they have now the science that can support the release of the rule. The public support for banning menthol is high and well over 60%. So, the politics of it works and the economics because it’s so costly in terms of our healthcare sector to continue treating patients who are smoking or using E-cigarettes. We feel fairly, yet guardedly optimistic, because they are experiencing pressure and there’s always political trading to find out what’s going to be a priority. However, we want to see action sooner rather than later. 

AV: What do you want our readers to know about what this ruling could potentially mean for their communities? 

YR: This is an important issue and an easy win for our community. The tobacco has targeted the more vulnerable communities to continue to advertise menthol. We want people to know we have a very easy way to save 45,000 African American and other lives every year. It’s also important to be aware of how the tobacco industry continues to use predatory marketing tactics that hook our communities and children, I think early on parents thought vaping was cool and less harmful but certainly for children, scientifically, it’s not. We want them to know they should be rigorous in looking out for their children to ensure they don’t become nicotine addicts and suffer major health complications. 

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