Lung cancer disparity: African Americans more likely to be diagnosed


(Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/Washington Post) File portrait of then-Prince Georges County Executive Wayne Curry.

Last week, former Prince George’s County executive Wayne K. Curry, who was diagnosis with lung cancer in August, announced he would use his public policy skills to help raise awareness about the disparities in the rates with which African Americans are diagnosed with and die from lung cancer.

“I want to publicize the rates of affliction, the severity and the existence of lung versus other cancers,” Curry said during an interview with The Washington Post  in his Upper Marlboro home.  “It afflicts black people more widely.”

“Lung cancer is more present and more virulent,” among African Americans, Curry said. “I want to take a megaphone and say, ‘Hey, dude, I’m talking about you. Here’s exhibit A,” he says pointing to himself, sitting in a white warm-up suit. “Lung cancer gave me something to do,”

In a 2010 report entitled “Too Many Case, Too Many Deaths: Lung Cancer in African Americans,” the American Lung Association declared  that there is a  “disparity by race” relating to the rates of diagnosis and mortality among African Americans suffering from lung cancer.

Although African Americans’ exposure to cigarette smoke is lower, the report found, African Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer more than other groups and suffer higher mortality rates.

The disparity may be attributed to “an intricate interaction of biological, environmental, political and cultural factors,” the report says.

Here are some statistics highlighted in the report:

• African American men are 37 percent more like to develop lung cancer than white men, “even though their overall exposure to cigarette smoke” is lower.

• White men smoked 30 to 40 percent more than African American men, “which should mean their exposure to the carcinogens in cigarette smoke is higher. Still more African American men develop lung cancer.”

• “American Indian and Alaska Native men smoke at higher rates than any other group, and they are less likely to get cancer,” the report said.

• The study found that more than 80 percent of African American smokers choose menthol cigarettes, compared with 32 percent of Hispanic smokers and 24 percent of white smokers, a “difference that may contribute to the health disparity between black and white smokers.”

• Smokers who used menthol cigarettes had “higher levels of cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, in their blood. These increased levels of cotinine have been related to higher nicotine exposure and may be associated with more severe levels of addiction.”

• Since the 1960s, tobacco companies targeted African American communities with ads featuring menthol brand cigarettes, the American Lung Association reports. Many of the ads suggested smoking menthol cigarettes was “pretty Kool,” “bold cold,” “smooth” and “a whole new bag of menthol smoking.”

• “This targeted campaign has been called the ‘African Americanization of menthol cigarettes’ by some researchers,” American Lung Association reports.“Menthol cigarettes were historically marketed toward African Americans as ‘smooth,’ ‘cool’ and ‘healthier’ alternatives to non-menthol cigarettes. Early on, the tobacco industry used advertising with tailored images and messages, while also promoting themselves as good corporate citizens by donating heavily to African American cultural organizations.”

• The ad campaigns were highly effective. “According to a November 2009 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health services Administration, nearly 83 percent of African American smokers aged 12 and older choose menthol cigarettes,” compared with 32 of Hispanic smokers and 24 percent of white smokers.

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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