Willie Flowers is president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference.

The first antismoking campaign that I ever witnessed was the American Cancer Society’s “Draggin’ Lady” PSA that featured a young Robin Givens. It was a breath of fresh air in a smoke-filled room. She was a young woman moving around an arcade room, smoking and creating havoc in what was a sanctuary for anyone young. The visual hit home. It stuck with me and made me feel like I could keep people from smoking.

Before that, my experiences involved anyone old enough to smoke smoking any and everywhere. At family events, card games, cars and even in restaurants, Americans carried a cigarette in one hand with children all about. It was not until I was a senior in high school that I was enriched with the knowledge of what tobacco did to the human body. Whether by smoking or chewing tobacco, it could make you sick and kill you.

During the same period, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and learned that systemic building blocks of communities or “social determinants of health” influence our environment and help achieve health outcomes, positive or negative ones. That is why as a college student, I was part of a movement that made my college campus “smoke free.” It seems like small now, but before that time, smokers were lighting up anywhere and knew little about the cancer-causing impact of secondhand smoke.

The effects of smoking have hit my life hard. Upward of 10 of my family members, all of whom were smokers, have died of preventable diseases within the past 20 years. When my father died of smoking-related illnesses in 2015, my advocacy to raise awareness about the ills of smoking ended as well. I didn’t realize that I stopped, but I did recall the feeling of regret and emptiness, knowing that regardless of my work as an activist on issues that saved the lives of people I didn’t even know, I never tried to convince my father to stop smoking.

Now, as president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, I have the opportunity to help make a difference in improving health and saving lives for residents of our state.

In 2013, a contentious court ruling, Altadis v. Prince George’s County, stripped Maryland’s local governments of their power to fully protect residents from the devastating effects of tobacco use and prevented them from passing new laws regulating tobacco products. The NAACP has joined LOCAL Maryland, the American Heart Association and others in advocating for the Maryland Local Tobacco Control Bill, which would restore the ability of localities to enact and enforce local laws regulating the sale and distribution of cigarettes and other tobacco products to fit the needs of their communities.

Historically, the NAACP has led grass-roots outreach and empowerment in an effort to heal families and communities. For years, broken systems have created broken communities, and though some focus has been on the people, it should glaringly be on the broken system itself. Today, our goal of educating impacted communities about tobacco can save lives and rewrite the narrative of our communities and create solutions.

Over the years, tobacco companies have rebranded themselves and marketed new products targeting the next generation of young people. Researchers found that stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods were up to 10 times more likely to display tobacco ads inside and outside than retailers in areas with fewer Black residents.

There are many statistics that remind us of the continued horrors tobacco brings to the lives of American families. One that stands out is that 7,500 Maryland residents die annually from preventable diseases related to smoking.

Big Tobacco is stronger than ever, but we have a chance to slow their path of destruction in our communities.

In this legislative session, by passing the Maryland Local Tobacco Control Bill, the Maryland General Assembly can ensure that localities can pass their own laws regulating tobacco products, which would improve the health of their citizens. By restoring the ability of local governments to pass new tobacco laws, including banning the sale of flavored tobacco, Maryland’s residents will live longer, healthier lives.

We should have influence over all systems that impact the health outcomes over the lives of Maryland residents. If we can alter the negative impact of tobacco, we can do anything.

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