A growing movement to ban the sale of flavored tobacco near schools has now come to Baltimore. Representatives from Baltimore’s schools, Baltimore’s Health Department and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council held an event, May 28, at Edmondson-Westside High School on how to keep young people from picking up the habit of smoking. 

The event was the first in a series, including ones at Bethel AME and the Empowerment Temple, leading up to the June 1 introduction of a bill to outlaw the distribution of flavored tobacco within 500 feet of a school by City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, District 8.

“It would be much more difficult for our children to be lured into the addiction of smoking, if our communities weren’t inundated with mentholated and flavored tobacco products,” said Councilwoman Holton, in a statement.

Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, has been working to bring similar legislation to cities in California and Minnesota. In December of 2013, Chicago passed a bill outlawing flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools.

In an interview with the AFRO, she said that tobacco usage was a social justice issue. “Menthol cigarettes have been disproportionately targeted to African Americans since the 1950s with cool jazz, imagery, and slogans. Now most African Americans smoke menthol.” She added, “There are documents from the tobacco industry that show they targeted neighborhoods with ads, free tobacco, advertising in magazines like Ebony and Jet and giving money to philanthropic groups. They systemically gave money to Black organizations to buy their silence.”

The event was postponed from earlier this year due to the riots over Freddie Gray.  “It’s real hard to get people’s attention when you’re stepping over dead bodies to talk about tobacco,” said McGruder.

According to McGruder, about 20 percent of the population in Baltimore smokes. However, she said, accurate statistics are difficult to come by. “They don’t capture youth who have dropped out of school, they don’t cover incarcerated people. There is a historically high smoking prevalence among these groups.”

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council was formed in California in 2008, said McGruder. “We initially formed in California because the state was cutting back on initiatives on tobacco control. Things like Swisher Sweets, Black and Mild and blunt wrappers are all unregulated.”

Black communities need extra protection due to the legacy of their being targeted by tobacco companies, said McGruder. “This legislation prioritizes the health of inner city children, which are primarily people of color. We’re left out of public policy in our communities,” said McGruder. “We’re de-normalizing tobacco usage in communities with the heaviest smoking rates. We’re working with elected officials to build an African American Tobacco Control platform to protect our children from the targeting of tobacco companies.”

For more information go to savingblacklives.org.