More than 15-years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the nation’s major cigarette manufacturers for their gross misrepresentation of the hazards of smoking to the general public. Finally, after years of wrangling and continued resistance, the Justice Department and the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund reached an agreement with the four major tobacco companies.
Part of this settlement requires these tobacco companies to spend up to $45 million placing “apology” or “corrective” ads in the media; primarily with television and radio networks and stations, newspapers and magazines. This is a gesture meant to make amends for the countless millions of lives that have been either lost or harmed beyond repair due to the consumption of tobacco products. Still, nearly a half million people will die from smoking-related diseases just in this year alone.
Unfortunately, the “apology ad” gesture forced upon the tobacco companies does not appear to be designed to offer any sort of “apology” to the African American community. Not one African American newspaper, radio station, television station or magazine has been included in the $45 million ad campaign, even though many of these same outlets were used to aggressively influence African American smokers. As the “front line” for healthcare in the African American community, members of the National Medical Association find this oversight to be an egregious error that needs to be corrected.
Without question, African Americans make up a significant number of those who are suffering from the pain and death caused by smoking. A recent report published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 25 percent of African American males over the age of 18 currently smoke cigarettes and 17 percent of African American women over the age of 18 smoke.
According to the most recent report issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, these individuals who smoke expose themselves to more than 7,000 chemicals and compounds; hundreds are toxic and at least 69 are known to cause cancer. Nearly one-third of all cancer deaths each year are directly linked to smoking. Smoking causes about 85 percent of all lung cancers in the U.S.
In addition, exposure to tobacco smoke quickly damages blood vessels throughout the body and makes the blood more likely to clot; damage that can cause heart attacks, strokes, and even sudden death. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can also inflame the delicate lining of the lungs and can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Finally, the recent Surgeon General’s report also adds more entries to the already-known list of smoking-caused diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, and two additional cancers – liver and colorectal.
Because of the African American community’s propensity to smoke, all of these diseases and conditions have been common and prevalent in Black households for decades. And the nation’s Black doctors are the individuals who are on the “front lines” of healthcare, treating these millions of suffering and dying patients annually.
Also for decades, this propensity to consume cigarette products by the African American community was strongly driven by the heavy-handed marketing and advertising practices of the tobacco companies relentlessly targeting our communities; flooding them with radio, newspaper and magazine ads depicting “cool” men and women, puffing on Kools, Winstons, Pall Malls or other dangerous brands. Yes, the ad agencies and media outlets made money, but thousands of African Americans were, and are, suffering and dying.
We totally support the Black publishers (National Newspaper Publishers Association) and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters in their efforts to have their outlets added to the media list designated to run the tobacco industry’s “apology ads.” As the individuals who have witnessed and treated, first-hand, the victims of smoking’s devastating incursion into our communities, the National Medical Association urges U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler to strongly consider altering the media plan, as proposed in United States v. Phillip Morris, et al, to include African American media outlets so that, in Judge Keller’s own words, the apology message reaches “everyone it needs to reach.”
Dr. Michael A. LeNoir is the president of the National Medical Association and one of the top clinical allergists and pediatricians in the San Francisco Bay area.