As National Minority Health Month continues, we highlight a health topic that is impacting women at alarming rates, lung cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control, the top three most common cancers among women are breast cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer. However, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among White, Black, Asian/ Pacific Islander, and American Indian/ Alaska Native women at 34.7 percent.
Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimated about 154,050 deaths from lung cancer with 83,550 in men and 70,500 in women in the United States for 2018.
To bring attention to the matter, the Los Angeles Sentinel spoke with co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), Carol McGruder on the harm of menthol cigarettes and what the council is doing to help.
The AATCLC has been at the forefront of tobacco control for ten years, standing on its mission and purpose to educate the African American community about the effects of tobacco. Overtime, the organization has been able to partner with community stakeholders and public health agencies to inform and affect the direction of tobacco policy and practices. AATCLC has also played a vital role in the passing of Prop 56, California’s 2016 tobacco tax. Additionally, AATCLC has worked tirelessly on the national movement to restrict the sale of mentholated tobacco products. As a result of the organization’s efforts, an ordinance was put in place in the city of San Francisco prohibiting the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products. With all the work AATCLC has accomplished over the years, the organization understands that the fight for tobacco control is not over.
How are women being targeted by the tobacco industry? McGruder says it’s in the advertisements.
“When you look back historically at the targeting of women, the ad campaign that really comes to mind is Virginia Slims, ‘you’ve come a long way baby.’ They were able to successfully link that campaign to the Women’s Liberation Movement. So many women started smoking because of ‘you’ve come a long way baby,’ that in 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer in terms of killing women,” she said.
“With lung cancer, 60,000 women die as compared to 40,000 with breast cancer, with breast cancer being more survivable. But when a women gets lung cancer, there aren’t any marches or rallies, or pink ribbons. She’s on her own.”
She goes on to say the latest advertisement that is targeting women is Camel number nine, a cigarette that came out in 2007.
“When they have these campaigns, they get people hooked, then they are in. The campaign could last five years but the tobacco industry targeted campaigns for women continue to reap the profits,” said McGruder.
LaTasha Turner, also known by her stage name “Sixfootah the Poet,” knows the effects of lung cancer all too well after growing up with a mother who smoked cigarettes.
“My mom, she was a chain smoker, said Turner.
“She used to smoke constantly, so much so, that my baby brother was born with heart problems due to her smoking during her pregnancy. My mom ended [up] with a lot of issues behind being a chain smoker.”
Turner, whose mother began smoking menthols, gradually began using other tobacco products. Turner believes her mother used smoking as an outlet.
“People don’t understand that smoking is a disease in itself because you are hooked and addicted to it to the point where you need it. [Smoking] kind of alters your mind to where you feel like you need it to survive. My mom needed her cigarettes to where her mood would change if she didn’t have them. My brother and I had to deal with the mood swings, [I remember my brother and I] looking through the couch for change so that she could buy her next pack of cigarettes,” she said.
“My brother and I went to school with our clothes smelling like smoke and family functions with our clothes smelling like smoke. I ended up with asthma behind it.”
As a result of years of smoking, Turner’s mother’s health began to decline.
“Both of her lungs collapsed, her liver and her kidney shut down and this all happened at one time. She had walking pneumonia, bronchitis, and the doctors ended up finding an infection throughout her entire body which put her in a comma for about five months due to being a chain smoker,” said Turner.
In December 2013, Turner says her life changed forever.
“That’s when everything shut down for my mom. She’s still here though, she is a fighter. My mom went through a lot and watching her go through it and not realizing the long term effects of being a smoker for over 20 years, it takes away from you your time with your mom. The love that you should be able to experience, you know, people don’t realize this is really a problem, she said.”
Turner decided to use poetry as a way to share her story and spread awareness about the effects of smoking. She has been able to perform this piece around the Bay Area and has plans to continue to use her story to help others.
“I want others to understand that the people who are smoking, it’s not that easy for them to stop. It’s not like putting down a cup of soda. [The tobacco industry] wants you hooked for a lifetime. I also want the people who are smoking to take one step at a time for you to stop, it doesn’t happen overnight. But you have to be willing to fight the fight,” she said.
Turner speaks as the voice of many who have lost a loved one to lung cancer. McGruder says the only way to decrease the number of Black women who are suffering and dying from lung cancer is to support laws prohibiting menthol and tobacco products and interrupt the cycle of addiction so that young Black children don’t enter into a cycle of smoking.
“As African Americans, we need to be more involved in the process and we need not buy into the false argument that we are criminalizing our community that we have to enact strong public health policy,” she said.
Visit www.savingblacklives.org for more information on AATCLC and the work the organization is doing with tobacco control. Check out www.lasentinel.net and follow Sixfootah the Poet on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to see her performance of “Say No to Tobacco.”