In 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.” Fifty-five years later, amid a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black and Brown Marylanders because of health inequalities, his words are even more poignant.
Racial and ethnic health disparities are caused by racism, not by race. They are caused by people and policies that put politics and profit above all else. We need to look no further than Big Tobacco’s role in bringing about so many of the chronic conditions and diseases that harm and kill Black Americans as proof.
Since the 1950s, Big Tobacco has marketed menthol-flavored products to the Black community using Black-dominated media. It has cultivated Black celebrity endorsers to hook users, deflecting criticism of their practices by making financial contributions to prominent, Black-run organizations. Today, about 90 percent of adult Black smokers choose menthol cigarettes, a rate more than double that of White smokers.
This gap is not just a matter of preference. Menthol cigarettes are far more insidious than other tobacco products. Menthol’s smooth flavor makes smoking for kids easier to start and harder to quit. About half of youths who smoke cigarettes start with and then use menthol cigarettes. With 70 years of aggressive advertising, Big Tobacco has hooked generations of Black Americans on its most addictive flavored products, with devastating consequences. The data does not lie.
Roughly 45,000 Black Americans die from tobacco use every single year. In Maryland, Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of lung cancer than any other demographic group, and they suffer heart disease at a rate 56 percent higher than white Marylanders.
Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) unveiled her Black agenda for the 2021 session, a package of important legislation aimed at dismantling systemic racial inequity in our state. I strongly support the speaker’s plan and its many worthy goals, but we should also take this opportunity to stop Big Tobacco’s unchecked exploitation of our lives for profit.
The General Assembly will soon consider HB 134 and SB 177, legislation that would end the sale of all flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes. I support this legislation and urge all my colleagues to join me in saying no to Big Tobacco and yes to making our state a place where all lives are valued equally.
Tobacco companies have spent billions of dollars over the past 70 years to hook our communities on flavored products, reaping billions more in profits from our addiction. If we are serious about addressing systemic racial inequalities in our state, we must put public health ahead of profit by removing all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, from the market once and for all.