Dr. Carla Williams

Smoking-related illness is the number one cause of preventable death in the Black community, surpassing AIDS, homicide, diabetes and accidents. In the District of Columbia, access to resources to help Black smokers quit continues to be vitally important. Why the urgency? Because most Blacks who smoke want to quit.

Blacks in the District suffer the most of any ethnic group from tobacco-related disease and death. While 14 percent of all adults in Washington, D.C., are smokers, 20.3 percent are Black. In D.C., smoking is a public health time bomb in our community.

The disparity in tobacco use rates is no accident. Tobacco companies have specifically targeted the Black community for decades. A 2007 study found there were 2.6 times as many tobacco advertisements per person in areas with an Black majority compared to White-majority areas.

Even more alarming, research suggests that tobacco advertising is more likely to be found near schools in minority or lower-income communities.  These ads predominantly target menthol tobacco products, which are preferred by Blacks.  This advertising works. An estimated 1.6 million Blacks under the age of 18 who are alive today will become regular smokers. About 500,000 of these eventual smokers will die prematurely from tobacco-related disease.

The Black community recognizes the need to quit – Black smokers are more likely than White smokers to think that smoking is socially unacceptable. More than 70 percent of current Black smokers want to quit. When it comes to quitting, research also shows Black smokers are also highly motivated. They are more likely than White smokers to have made a quit attempt in the previous year.

But Blacks struggle with quitting more than other ethnicities. The 2010 National Health Interview survey showed only 3.3 percent of Blacks remained tobacco free six months after their quit attempt, compared to 6 percent of Whites. Reasons for lower quitting success rates by Black smokers are complex and may include lack of programs tailored to Black communities and reduced access to effective medicines to treat nicotine dependence.

For our community, help and support in trying to quit is critical. To emphasize the importance of quitting and the resources available to those who are trying to quit, the D.C. City Council has designated “D.C. Calls it Quits Week” (#DCQUITS on social media).

The week-long campaign is a partnership of over 40 community and health organizations, businesses and public agencies that will be offering tips and information to D.C. residents so that smokers who want to quit can give up cigarettes once and for all.

This campaign will also help connect people who want to quit with the resources and treatment they need to be successful. Research has shown that smokers who get help are much more likely to see success when they try to quit than those who act alone.

Even though quitting is hard, it is not impossible – and for the Black community, it is critical to improving our public health.

We hope all Washingtonians make the commitment to call it quits this year. The only way to be a quitter is to try.

By calling 1-800-Quit-Now, D.C. residents can speak with trained coaches who can provide information and help with quitting.  Quit line users age 18 and older will also receive a free, one-month supply of nicotine patches.

Dr. Carla Williams is an associate professor of medicine at Howard University and interim director of the Howard University Cancer Center.