For decades, the surgeon general and others have been reminding us that smoking doesn't do us any good. And millions of us have stopped smoking.
But a growing group among us hasn't been listening. The "new smokers," according to the National Center for Health Statistics, are women with incomes of less than $5,000.
Today, young urban girls in their teens, particularly minorities, are prone to becoming smokers, according to the experts.
Exploiting this group, as well as other lower-income people, especially blacks, the cigarette companies have shifted their advertising campaigns to the new market.
"Now cigarette advertising also seems to be moving away from up-scale publications while maintaining or increasing advertising in other, down-scale publications and other media more likely to catch the eye of blue-collar, black and ethnic minority readers who increasingly constitute the smoking public," Dr. Alan Blum, chairman of Doctors Ought to Care and editor of "The Cigarette Underworld," wrote in a recent article in The Washington Post.
Besides magazines, the manufacturers' and advertising agencies' $3 billion annual campaign to promote cigarettes is being launched on mass transit systems and billboards in low-income areas, where more than half the outdoor advertising is said to be about cigarettes.
Even the mystique of success, sophistication and sex associated with smoking in advertising is a special lure to many urban minority teens -- a beautiful black girl being hugged by a virile man imprints an alluring image on these impressionable kids to whom success means clothes, cars and instant gratification.
And while the links between smoking and the high rates of heart disease and lung cancer among minorities have long been recognized, Dr. Karl E. Hammonds, a Northeast Washington pediatrician and president of Progressive Health Associates, believes the dangers of black people smoking cigarettes goes even further.
Pinpointing cigarettes as the possible beginning of the cycle of drug addiction among some young women, Hammonds says that once they learn to inhale hot gases without choking and become accustomed to the nicotine mini-high, cigarettes open the door to drug abuse through smoking other substances such as marijuana, cigarettes laced with PCP or the smokable form of cocaine known as "crack."
According to the D.C. Lung Association, low-income girls in urban areas are at higher risk to become smokers becuse of the setting in which they live. Cigarettes can be bought in some corner stores for a few cents each and it is not unusual to see a boy of 8 or 9 years old smoking outside a schoolyard or recreation center. The pressure to conform is so great that some children who don't want to smoke may tuck cigarettes behind their ears to give the impression that they do.
"If every black in America said, 'I will no longer smoke,' " said Hammond, "the health statistics would turn around." But Ann Browder, a black lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute Inc., disagrees even that a definite link exists between smoking and the rising rate of preventable minority deaths. "I don't think there is any way one can say cigarette smoking is the sole cause of any disease in our society today."
One barrier to reducing cigarette smoking among poorer Americans has been the tobacco industry's involvement in cultural and educational events that promote ethnic identity. Brands like Salem and Kool bring these communities everything from Hispanic street fairs to awards saluting black achievement to jazz festivals.
This involvement in minority causes and culture at the same time the communities are in dire need of funds sends a barrage of mixed messages to black communities. The result is that cigarette companies are ultimately able to leech off the health of blacks and other minorities to make a profit.
Yet it seems inconsistent that minority organizations would accept the tobacco lobby's money to underwrite events while at the same time discussing problems of health.
Without doubt, there are a lot of guilty players in this drama, and the sad thing is that nobody is fighting it. The time has come for minority leaders, educators, churches, community groups and parents to pool their resources to come up with countereducation programs to offset the tobacco industry's inroads into our communities, and to join with other coalitions that are working to reduce the smoking rate in all groups. What the tobacco industry has been offering is a two-edged sword, and minorities are the victims, not the victors.