Smoking-related illness is the No. 1 cause of death among African-Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, Historically Black Colleges and Universities in North Carolina are stepping up efforts to combat tobacco.
Students and administrators from seven HBCUs gathered Friday for a conference on implementing tobacco-free policies at historically black colleges. The summit, called “Together We Can,” was jointly hosted by the American Cancer Society, the N.C. Department of Public Health and the Truth Initiative, a national organization dedicated to ending tobacco use.
“The issue of smoking and tobacco control is absolutely a social justice issue,” said Bidisha Sinha, director of Tobacco Control Initiatives at the American Cancer Society. “Tobacco companies target African-Americans at disproportionate rates.”
According to the CDC, menthol cigarettes are often specifically targeted toward black users, and tobacco companies have historically placed larger amounts of advertising in African-American publications. Until recently, big tobacco companies gave money to the NAACP.
Seventy-two percent of blacks are exposed to secondhand smoke – a much higher rate than whites. Overall, 47,000 black Americans die each year from smoking-related causes.
Ritney Castine, managing director at the Truth Initiative, said nontraditional tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and hookah are a growing problem among college students. While many believe these products to be safer than cigarettes, research from the World Health Organization shows that smoking hookah for an hour is equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes.
“A lot of young adults think smoking is a problem of the past, but that’s not the case,” Castine said during a panel discussion. Castine, along with officials from the N.C. Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, stressed that any time there is combustion in the lungs, it is unhealthy.
Andre Lee-Moye, student attorney general at N.C. Central University, spoke about his experience successfully spearheading a smoke-free policy on NCCU’s campus. The policy, which will go into effect January 2017, is designed to help those addicted to tobacco, not punish them.
“We want to positively affect our students for life, not just while they’re in school,” Lee-Moye said in an interview.
Lee-Moye said students who violate the policy will be given warnings and offered counseling. Tobacco cessation products such as nicotine gum and patches will be available for free to both students and faculty.
“This is a counselor’s issue, not a law enforcement issue,” said Lee-Moye. “We are simply trying to educate them.”
Students from seven of North Carolina’s 11 HBCUs attended Friday’s event, many hoping to learn more about creating successful anti-smoking policies on their campuses.
“We don’t have a policy at all on our campus,” said Shae Thomas, a student and wellness ambassador at Fayetteville State University. “A lot of people do smoke right outside of buildings, or even in the buildings. We need some change.”
The American Cancer Society recently announced it will offer grants of at least $10,000 to 25 colleges across the country to help implement smoke-free policies. Students and administrators can apply for these grants until May 30.
The organization is also launching an initiative to restore funding for youth tobacco prevention programs, which was cut from the state budget in 2012. Ray Riordan, grassroots manager for the American Cancer Society, said 90 percent of smokers start before the age of 18.
“The future health of our kids is worth more than zero,” said Riordan. “Cigarette smoking rates are not as low as we’d like. But all these emerging products are also harmful.”
To apply for the American Cancer Society’s Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative grants, visit cancer.org/tfgci