Fifty years after the first U.S. Surgeon General report on smoking, patterns of cigarette use have changed. Tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, but smoking is increasingly a burden on the poor and working class.
According to a study recently published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Americans living in affluent counties smoke less over time than those living in counties with lower income.
In New York City and State, leaders in tobacco control policy have instituted a comprehensive approach to tobacco control and prevention, including strong smoke-free laws, high prices for cigarettes and hard-hitting educational media. While the overall smoking rate has declined in New York State, the rates have not declined for the poor and less educated as significantly as they have among those who are more affluent and educated.
Take the South Bronx—a prime example of this disparity. The Bronx has been rated as one of the nation’s unhealthiest and most poverty stricken counties. More than a quarter-million people in the South Bronx are living in poverty, making it the poorest Congressional District in the nation. With a smoking rate of 18.2%, the South Bronx has one of the highest smoking rates in New York City, which has a citywide smoking rate of 15.5%.
To address this, we’ve partnered with many Bronx community organizations and other key stakeholders to reduce youth exposure to tobacco marketing, expand smoke-free outdoor areas and increase the number of smoke-free apartments, co-ops and condos in the South Bronx. We’ve made great progress, but we’re in a tough, uphill battle with a well-financed industry that spends $213.5 million a year on marketing in New York State to recruit new smokers and keep current smokers hooked.
Tobacco marketing disproportionately affects low-socioeconomic communities, and youth in these communities are particularly vulnerable. On this year’s Kick Butts Day, Bronx youth surveyed and confirmed that many local stores near their schools are plastered with tobacco ads.
While Big Tobacco can no longer advertise on large billboards or air tobacco commercials on TV, our youth are still bombarded by tobacco marketing, especially on their way to and from school. Some signs in stores close to schools are four feet high from the ground, while others are above-your-waist signs, like mini-billboards. These signs are designed to attract youth and ensure cigarettes are part of their normal everyday life.
The more tobacco promotions youth see each day, the greater the risk they will start smoking. If we’re going to reduce smoking rates in poor and working class areas like the South Bronx and create a tobacco-free generation, we need to reduce our youth’s exposure to tobacco marketing and de-normalize smoking.
Regardless of socio-economic status, our youth must be protected from an industry that will try anything to lure them into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.