During Black History Month, we talk a lot about our accomplishments and hard-won freedom. We have a lot to celebrate. But as a doctor, I feel obliged to talk about one area in which black New Yorkers are not yet free – and that is of our dependence on tobacco. Smoking-related illness kills more black Americans than anything else, and it takes an outsize toll on our community. Studies show that black smokers are more likely than other smokers to develop smoking-related illnesses, and more likely to die from them. Smoking affects every organ and system of the body, and second-hand smoke harms families and children. Despite these risks, more than 230,000 of New York City’s black adults still smoke.
African-American smokers know the facts, and many are trying to kick the habit. In New York City, black smokers make more quit attempts than other smokers, yet they’re less likely to succeed. Why do they have so much trouble? Menthol cigarettes may be one reason. Black smokers are more likely to smoke menthols, and research suggests that menthol helps foster tobacco addiction. The cooling effect of menthol may mask the harshness of tobacco – enabling the smoker to inhale more smoke, absorbing more nicotine and more toxic chemicals.
Tobacco companies actively target African Americans by advertising menthol cigarettes in magazines like Jet and Ebony. They have done this for years, because they know it works. We can measure the impact in smoking-related deaths.
I always tell my patients, if you can’t quit alone, it is not a personal failing. There are aids and medications that can double your chances of quitting successfully. The nicotine patch is one of them. As always, smokers can call 311 or the New York State Smokers’ Quitline (866-NY-QUITS) to get help. Free smoking cessation services are also available in all five boroughs.
If anyone out there is trying to quit, I welcome your questions about how to succeed. I would especially like to hear the stories of black smokers hooked on menthols. If we support each other, many more can break this awful addiction.