Smoking, Race and Ethnicity: Tobacco Use and African-Americans

Tobacco use and African-Americans causes a big problem in black communities, spurred on by a predilection for menthol cigarettes and marketing activities of tobacco companies. Although the problem has existed for a long time, it’s time to make a change.

Tobacco use is an equal-opportunities killer. People of any race, any age range, and any socioeconomic status might end up addicted to nicotine and the collection of other chemicals in tobacco smoke. Despite this, there are several important differences in smoking rates and smoking habits between different races and different ethnicities. The relationship between tobacco use and African-Americans is a perfect example of this, with African-American smoking rates being higher than many other races’ and a substantial percentage of black smokers choosing menthol cigarettes.

Tobacco Use and African-Americans: The Statistics

The simplest way to look at the issue of tobacco use and African-Americans is to compare smoking rates between them and other groups. According to the CDC, in 2015, 15.1 % of U.S. adults were current smokers, but the rates differed substantially by race and ethnicity. For African-Americans, the smoking rate was 16.7 %, which is very close to the rate among Caucasians (16.6 %) but notably higher than the national average. In fact, only mixed race people and American Indian/Alaska Natives have higher smoking rates than African-Americans.

This shows that there is a big problem with tobacco use and African-Americans, but the issue is more complicated than it might seem. For instance, although African-Americans smoke at similar rates to Caucasians, African-Americans don’t smoke as many cigarettes per day on average. Additionally, youth smoking rates among African-Americans are much lower than youth smoking rates among Latino or Hispanic Americans and Caucasians.

African-Americans and Smoking Cessation

As with most racial groups, African-Americans who smoke predominantly want to quit. Research shows that 74.1 % of adult African-American smokers want to quit completely, which is higher than in all other races and ethnicities. For example, 69.4 % of white smokers and 52.1 % of American Indians and Alaska Natives want to quit. African-Americans also attempt to quit more than smokers of most other races, with about half making a quit attempt each year.

However, the bad news is that African-Americans are less likely to successfully quit smoking compared to other races. There could be many reasons for this, but the most important appears to be that they don’t use smoking cessation treatments as often. For example, while a Latino smoker trying to quit might use nicotine patches and see a counselor, an African-American smoker is more likely to try to quit “cold turkey.”

Tobacco Use and African-Americans: The Menthol Problem and Tobacco Industry Marketing

Another facet of the link between tobacco use and African-Americans is the type of cigarettes they smoke. According to the CDC, almost 9 out of 10 African-American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes to ordinary ones, compared to just 2 out of 10 white smokers and 3 out of 10 Latino smokers.

This disparity is partially due to targeted marketing from the tobacco industry. For example, in the past tobacco companies placed more advertising in publications primarily read by African-Americans, and this focused on menthol cigarettes.

Menthol cigarettes might not seem like a big issue, but by making tobacco smoke more palatable to the user, it facilitates the inhalation of more harmful chemicals. Additionally, there is evidence that menthol cigarettes actually add to the addictiveness of smoking, making it even more difficult to quit. Menthol smokers have many characteristic signs of being more addicted, including smoking sooner after waking up and being more likely to wake in the middle of the night to smoke.

In short, when it comes to tobacco use and African-Americans, menthol is a significant part of the problem, and potentially one of the reasons quit-rates are so low despite their high motivation to stop.

Smoking Cessation for African Americans: How to Quit for Good

It goes without saying that the risks of smoking are exactly the same for African-Americans as they are for other races, so any African-American smokers should quit as soon as they can. The good news is that African-American smokers want to quit more than smokers with other racial or ethnic backgrounds, but as we’ve learned, the bad news is that they’re often unsuccessful.

In order to give yourself the best chance of quitting, the most important thing to do is to make use of one or more of the many quitting aids available to smokers. Even if you don’t want to attend counseling or take a stop-smoking medicine (although both will increase your odds of success), there are nicotine patches, gums and inhalers, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes which can all help ease your cravings and substantially reduce your risk of developing a smoking-related disease.

It doesn’t matter which approach you use; all that matters is that you don’t make the same mistake most smokers do and assume that “cold turkey” is the best way to quit. Really, the “best” way to quit is whichever one works for you.