Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the country and is related to at least 5,600 deaths in D.C. alone. D.C. is on the way to becoming smoke free, but there are populations still vulnerable to the influence of the industry. Tobacco use disproportionately impacts many marginalized populations—such as people in low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ communities – that have a long and documented history of being targeted by the tobacco industry. And with the rise of electronic cigarettes, high school students are more vulnerable than ever before to marketing that could lead them down an unhealthy path. These groups need additional support.
African Americans suffer the most of any ethnicity from tobacco-related disease and death. Smoking-related illness is the number one cause of preventable death in the African American community, surpassing AIDS, homicide, diabetes and accidents. Residents of Ward 8, the poorest in the city, are the most likely to be current smokers. Compared to the general population’s smoking rate of 16.4 percent, smoking rates are higher among Black adults in D.C., at 20.3 percent.
The disparity in tobacco use rates is no accident. Tobacco companies have specifically targeted the African American community for decades. In fact, a 2007 study found there were 2.6 times more tobacco advertisements per person in areas with an African American majority compared to White-majority areas.
In addition to the African-American community, the LGBTQ community is vulnerable to the dangers of smoking. Nearly 25 percent of LGBTQ adults in the United States smoke – double that of the general adult population. Tobacco use is even more prevalent among people living with HIV/AIDs. It is estimated that as many as 70 percent of people with HIV use tobacco and are two- to three-times more likely to smoke cigarettes than people without HIV.
Higher rates of smoking in the LGBTQ community can be attributed to a wide range of factors, including coping with the added stress of societal prejudices. Unfortunately, many of the places meant to be safe havens for LGBTQ individuals and those with HIV are actually the main battlegrounds for fighting smoking. For example, the tobacco industry has targeted LGBT individuals and people with HIV for 25 years, advertising at LGBTQ community events, including Pride and even giving money to both national and local LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations.
Finally, the rise of e-cigarettes – devices that allow users to inhale a vapor containing nicotine, flavor, and other chemicals, are being targeted to high school students. Across the U.S., use of e-cigarettes increased 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015. In D.C. alone, 14.8 percent of middle school students and 34.1 percent of high school students have used e-cigarettes before.
E-cigarette companies use product placement with celebrities, sponsor events frequented by a younger audience, distribute free samples, have “flavors” that make the product more attractive and often times do not require an age restriction to purchase the product.
This year, the American Lung Association in the District of Columbia joined the DC Tobacco Free Coalition and 40 other partners from across the District to help all smokers, and especially these vulnerable populations, quit smoking as part of DC Calls it Quits! Week, which took place Sept. 18-22 Throughout the week, partners came together to highlight the importance of quitting smoking and called attention to resources to help D.C. residents quit for good, such as the DCQuitline, 1-800-Quit-Now, which provides services, including counseling sessions with certified tobacco treatment specialists, free nicotine patches and the new “Text to Quit” program being rolled out by the D.C. Department of Health.
Smokers who get help are more likely to quit successfully, which is why DC Calls It Quits is a critical first step to providing every smoker in DC with the tools they need to quit smoking.
Laura Hale is a program specialist with the American Lung Association in the District of Columbia, Chair of the Programs Committee for the DC Tobacco Free Coalition, and a resident of D.C.