I grew up in a period when smoking was cool and common. Cigarettes were accessible and encouraged. Models were often depicted with the thin tobacco stem, positioned perfectly between two fingers. Factory workers labored openly with a “square” balanced evenly on their lips. No matter the race, socioeconomic status, or age, Big Tobacco had engrained smoking in the American culture. Hook, line, and sinker, they had us.
It would be years later before we fully understood the tactics employed to entice and retain their consumer. Groomed at a young age by “Joe Camel” or infused with candy flavored nicotine, cigarette manufactures spared no scheme or expense to grab the attention of the U.S. consumer. In 1966, the four largest tobacco companies spent nearly $2 billion dollars in annual advertising. By 2019, that number had risen to nearly $8 billion dollars a year.
The number is staggering, particularly when you factor in the huge settlements these companies have paid out over the years. You see, in the 1950’s people began to figure out something was wrong. Reports began to surface linking cigarettes to lung cancer and early lawsuits were filed. Armed with tons of high powered lawyers and deep pockets, the tobacco industry prevailed. Little did they know that the fight was just beginning.
Over the years, research has strengthened the case of plaintiffs. Internal documents have been uncovered that demonstrated that the industry had known their products were harmful for years. The tide turned and big payouts went to individuals, families, and state agencies, who absorbed a lot of the financial burden of caring for those impacted by tobacco-related illnesses. Cases continue to be decided and settlements reached that, in the case of Wisconsin, date back to 1998. We learned in 2021, that the state would receive roughly $14 million, as a part of a multistate settlement.
Yet, with all that we know about the harmful effects of both first and secondhand smoke, the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) stated that an estimated 31 million adults continue to use cigarettes. Further, the CDC reports that some “16 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease”. In the African-American community those numbers correlate to tobacco being a major contributor to the three leading causes of death among African Americans—heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
It is with that understanding that I am such a big supporter of the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network and Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network. Campaigns like “No Menthol Sunday” and “No Singles/No Loosies,” which are strategies targeted at Black consumers, are doing the work to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking. We are fortunate to have a network of professionals working to keep our health, lives, and futures from going up in smoke. The least we could do is meet them half way.