Black community leaders advocate for bans on flavored tobacco, fight for ordinances to limit sales

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Channel Powe, left, and Cynthia Smitherman, middle, advocate for a smoke-free state. Smitherman’s son, Rodney Smith, right, is pictured at 18 years old. He died 30 years later from head and neck cancer. (Photos courtesy of Channel Powe and Cynthia Smitherman)

PHOENIX — Cynthia Smitherman, who’s been educating people about the dangers of smoking for 30 years, lost her only son to head and neck cancer in 2016. She blames tobacco companies for targeting Black youth in their advertising for menthol cigarettes, and said her son’s habit of smoking Marlboro Menthols for 20 years was the reason for his death.

It’s a habit 45,000 African Americans die from each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Local Black churches, community leaders and organizations are being proactive in warning about the dangers of menthol-flavored tobacco, electronic cigarettes and smoking in general. In May, many took part in No Menthol Sunday, a national initiative organized by the Center for Black Health and Equity, to increase smoking awareness and prevention.

“To be a mother, to walk into a hospital and see your son laying on a gurney and then trying to bring him back to life,” Smitherman said. “That will wake you up. That will give you resolve.”

Smitherman said her son would accompany her to the smoking cessation classes she taught. He would pass out the materials. “I thought it would be a good thing for him to see what the hazards are of smoking and for him not to do it,” she said.

Among African Americans, menthol cigarettes caused about 157,000 premature deaths and attracted 1.5 million new menthol smokers from 1980 to 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Menthol cigarettes in total, the 2021 study published in Tobacco Control said, caused 378,000 premature deaths and attracted 10.1 million new smokers.

Menthol was the cigarette of choice for 85% of Black smokers. In comparison, 48% of Hispanic adults who smoked used menthol cigarettes, and among non-Hispanic White adults who smoked, it was 30%.

Young Black adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are especially susceptible to smoking and tobacco use. Their smoking habit leaves them with lower life expectancies and higher death rates than white Americans, according to a 2016 commentary from the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

Smitherman picked up the habit at 16, she said, because she thought it made her look cool. She smoked Kool Menthols. By the time she was 35 she was smoking two and a half packs a day. The day she went in for a third pack, she said, she realized she didn’t want to be another statistic.

“I thought I was going to die because my chest was sore and my throat was raw,” she said. “I made the pledge as we do sometimes, ‘God, if you let me live today, I will never do this again,’ and that’s what happened. I answered an ad to teach non-smoking and became an instructor.”

Channel Powe, an organizer with Flavors Hook Kids Tempe participated in No Tobacco Sunday at her church, First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix. She said African Americans have had a target on their backs since the 1940s.

Tobacco companies “have sponsored jazz festivals. They have given money to historically Black colleges and universities. They advertise Black likenesses on billboards throughout our communities. They contribute money to prominent civil rights organizations and donate to our Black political politicians and campaigns,” Powe said. “It comes down to money compounded with racism. We’ve always dealt with racism. It’s a continuation of systemic racism. You might not get an opportunity from Lancome to be in a commercial, but ‘Big Tobacco’ targets and makes cigarettes affordable.”

According to the American Cancer Society, tobacco companies spend about $9.1 billion a year in the U.S. on marketing. Alvin Galloway, a local volunteer dedicated to building a smoke-free community, said tobacco companies reach younger demographics by pushing a misconception that smoking and being cool go hand in hand.

“Once you get them as a youth then you have them for life, which will shorten their life,” Galloway said.

He spoke at Tanner Chapel AME Church in downtown Phoenix on No Menthol Sunday.

“We are not here to shame our people, but we just want to provide them resources so they can take control of their health,” he said. “Our mission is to save souls, save lungs and save lives.”

Galloway spoke about the impact menthol cigarettes and tobacco have had on the Black community.

“(Big tobacco) is very sinister in how they target a demographic,” he said. “Their main thing is profit so they don’t care about the effects of their product. They’re putting profit over the health of a community, over the health of a person so they can have their stock value go up and have a flourishing company.”

Warren H. Stewart Sr., senior pastor at First Institutional Baptist Church, said he advocates for a ban on menthol tobacco.

“Big tobacco has targeted Black folks, young and old, for decades, burning up our money, making countless smokers sick and even shortening the lives of too many other sisters and brothers,” he said. “This is the day that you and I change the trajectory of our community toward healthier habits.”

Locally, people are starting to pay attention.

Powe said the biggest hope so far has been with the city of Tempe, where a proposed ordinance would establish a tobacco sales license for retailers, enact fines to ensure compliance and raise the minimum age of tobacco purchase to 21 years old. A vote on the ordinance is expected this fall.

In April 2022, the FDA announced proposed product standards to prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and prohibit all characterizing flavors other than tobacco in cigars.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

Brian King, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products said in March that the agency received about 250,000 comments regarding the proposed rule that would ban or limit the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The rule could go into effect as early as this fall.

Smitherman lost her son, Rodney Smith, when he was 48 years old. She said she wishes people will “open their eyes to the havoc smoking has reaped amongst the community.”

“I still cry every day,” she said. I still tear up because I hear his laughter. I look in the mirror and I can make an expression that was his expression. In my mind it says, ‘Hey Mom I’m okay’ because I saw that expression in the mirror as myself. It’s the same kind of little funny look that he’d give me and his little giggle. It keeps him alive, and if I can help someone else I will.”

Sophia Biazus soh-fee-uh bee-ahh-zus
News Reporter, Phoenix

Sophia Biazus expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Biazus plans to intern as a reporter at the Phoenix New Times this year.