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Why Your Plans for Diversity and Social Justice Should Address Tobacco

Why Your Plans for Diversity and Social Justice Should Address Tobacco

For many years, tobacco use has been talked about as a “lifestyle choice” and a “bad habit.” The consequences of smoking are now widely known more than 50 years after the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964. So, if someone is smoking in 2020, it’s their choice, right? 

Wrong. It’s important to understand the history of tobacco marketing in the U.S. and the ways in which racial and ethnic minorities have been targeted by the tobacco industry. 

When asked why he didn’t smoke, an R.J. Reynold’s executive replied, “We don’t smoke that s***. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the Black and stupid.” 

This is why tobacco use is a social justice issue.

And this is why tobacco use requires action and engagement from everyone—including employers—to create meaningful change.

Consider these factors:
  • Communities of color have been targeted by tobacco advertising. Tobacco companies have strategically marketed to racial and ethnic communities for decades. In cities like Washington, DC, there are up to 10 times more tobacco ads in Black neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods. American Indian and Alaska Natives are also heavily targeted by tobacco companies through extensive promotions, sponsorships, and advertising campaigns.

Internal tobacco industry documents have revealed the industry’s interest in Hispanic and Latino communities because they deemed the population “easy to reach” and “undermarketed.”

Now, the tobacco industry is even using the current interest in social justice and the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic—which affect communities of color more—to promote their products. For example, Altria donated millions of dollars to social justice organizations that address systemic racism, as well as small businesses impacted by recent demonstrations against police brutality—a shameful hypocrisy as it continues to spend billions to market its deadly products.

  • Menthol: easier to smoke, harder to quit. Menthol cigarettes have long been marketed to the Black community. Today, nearly 90% of all African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes, which have been found to be easier to smoke and harder to quit. They are also more appealing to young, inexperienced smokers, which makes them more likely to addict youth to nicotine.

Among middle and high school students, more than 70% of African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to 51% of white smokers.

  • Disproportionate health impacts of tobacco among racial and ethnic minority groups. Although African Americans start smoking at a later age than whites and smoke fewer cigarettes per day, they are more likely to die from a tobacco-related disease than whites. Tobacco use is a major contributor to the leading causes of death among African Americans: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.

Experts believe racial differences in smoking topography (i.e., how a cigarette is smoked), socioeconomic factors, and metabolism of tobacco carcinogens may all play a role. Likewise, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer are leading causes of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives, and high rates of tobacco use are a primary risk factor.

 See our fact sheets for more information on targeted communities:

Tobacco Cessation Treatment Works for Everyone

The good news is that the majority (68%) of tobacco users want to stop smoking, and more than half try to quit each year.

Desire to quit is especially high (73%) among African Americans.

Existing tobacco cessation strategies are effective across racial and ethnic minority groups, which means it’s critical to focus on getting proven treatments into the hands of tobacco users. 

What You Can Do

As your organization works to increase diversity and inclusion, it’s important to determine how you can best support your workforce in ways that ensure long-term health and wellness outcomes—for everyone. Tobacco use is a key issue that should be addressed in any workforce, and it is particularly important for people of color. 

One example of a critical step to take today is adopting a 100% tobacco-free policy across your workspaces and public places. This means a policy that includes all forms of tobacco, including e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. 

It can be surprising to learn that only 80% of indoor workers in the U.S. are covered by a 100% smoke-free policy. In certain industries, this percentage is even less. Only 54%-75% of outdoor workers have tobacco use policies. When disparities like this exist at the policy level, it increases the likelihood of disparities at the individual level.

Passing clean-air laws to create tobacco-free workspaces and public places helps denormalize smoking and remove smoking cues. Such measures have been proven to lower population-based smoking rates both by reducing the social acceptability of tobacco use and by increasing quit attempts. This is a step that has an equal impact across your workforce.

Together, we can be part of the solution for addressing and eliminating tobacco-related health disparities, both in your workforce and, by extension, in your community.

To learn more about tobacco’s impact on racial and ethnic groups, visit the Truth Initiative site.


Amanda Graham, Ph.D.
Amanda Graham, Ph.D.

Chief of Innovations

As Chief of Innovations, Dr. Amanda Graham leads the Innovations Center within Truth Initiative. The Innovations Center is dedicated to designing and building leading digital products for tobacco cessation, including the EX Program. She is internationally recognized as a thought leader in web and mobile quit-smoking interventions and online social networks and has been awarded over $15 million in research funding. She has published over 100 peer-reviewed manuscripts and serves on National Institutes of Health study sections and numerous journal editorial boards. Graham is Professor of Medicine (adjunct) at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science.

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