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Tobacco use claims more than 400,000 lives annually in the US, says Dr. Regina Benjamin

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By Nathan Turner Jr.
For the Birmingham Times

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, MD, of Mobile. (Provided Photo).
Former U.S. Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, MD, of
Mobile. (Provided Photo).

Whether serving as U.S. Surgeon General or a physician in private practice, Regina Benjamin, MD, of Mobile, has never wavered in her fight against tobacco use.

“The foundation is prevention, stopping young people from taking that first cigarette, since 90 percent of youth start before age 18 and 99 percent before age 26,” said Benjamin, who served as U.S. Surgeon General under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. “The goal is to get them to not ever start.”

Many young adults are ignorant about the health effects of tobacco, she said.

“The health effects of tobacco are tremendous. In addition to causing lung cancer, it can lead to high blood pressure and circulation problems that can cause a person to lose limbs. Young people don’t think about all the consequences,” said Benjamin, who added that tobacco use claims more than 400,000 lives annually in the U.S.

The doctor outlined a litany of ill-effects from tobacco use, including bladder cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and constricted arteries that can lead to strokes. Also, there are more than 7,000 known chemical compounds, as well as toxic and carcinogenic agents in tobacco and cigarette smoke, according to researchers.

“Younger smokers may find that their gums will bleed, and they can lose teeth and have yellowed or stained teeth,” said Benjamin, who is a native of Daphne in South Alabama.

No Menthol Sunday

Benjamin made her comments ahead of No Menthol Sunday, May 28. This national observance day, led by the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN) Inc., encourages congregations to support one another in escaping tobacco addiction and to discuss the harms of mentholated cigarettes. The goal of this event is to remind congregants that mentholated cigarettes are easier for young people to start and harder for smokers to quit. Organizers aim to combat the marketing of tobacco products to African-American communities, as well as assist those who want to quit by helping them find the support and resources they need.

Ritney Castine, managing director of community and youth engagement for the Truth Initiative in Washington, D.C., is among the antismoking advocates who want to make “tobacco use a thing of the past.” His organization, which sponsors Menthol-Free Mondays in the area, says it is America’s largest nonprofit public health group spreading the truth about tobacco through education, community activism, and engagement.

Castine has urged communities to push for more smoke-free public areas, a cause taken up by middle schools and colleges nationwide, according to Truth Initiative.

“We hope to raise some level of commitment to having tobacco-free campuses and build student engagement on how [anti-tobacco] policies are going to pass and help raise awareness about tobacco,” said Castine, whose organization works with 135 colleges, including more than 40 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), to help young people ward off tobacco use.

What Is Menthol?

Research shows that 88 percent of African-American smokers favor menthol cigarettes. Menthol is a minty flavor that aids in tobacco addiction and makes it more difficult to quit smoking. A soothing substance found in mint plants like peppermint and spearmint, menthol can be found in cigarettes, cigars, little cigars, smokeless tobacco products, and tobacco rolling paper.

Castine said his group and many others focus on the black community for a reason.

“In African-American and lower-income areas of major cities, you may see 10 times more advertising [,such as billboards,] than in other areas,” said Castine.

The Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta says tobacco company advertising and promotion influence young people to start using tobacco. African-American communities are targeted through ads and promotional efforts for mentholated cigarettes, as well. Many campaigns use urban culture and language to promote menthol cigarettes; tobacco-sponsored hip-hop bar nights with samples of specialty menthol cigarettes; and direct-mail promotions, the CDC says.

$9 Billion on Ads

In 2014, cigarette and smokeless-tobacco companies spent more than $9 billion on advertising and promotional expenses in the U.S., according to the CDC. Tobacco company representatives have maintained that mentholated cigarettes are no more or less addictive and harmful than other types on the market—although they are quick to acknowledge that all cigarettes are addictive and potentially deadly, according to a Health.com report.

Benjamin agreed that the tobacco industry targets both African-Americans and young people in its advertising campaigns, and she urges youngsters and adolescents to fight back.

“The solution is to get young people involved. They need to know how they are being manipulated and sought after,” she said.

Benjamin, whose mother died of lung cancer at age 75, spearheaded the release of two surgeon general’s reports on tobacco during her tenure in the Obama administration. The second, 2012’s “Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” came with this observation from Benjamin: “For every one of the 1,200 adults who die each day in this country due to smoking, at least two young people or young adults become regular smokers. One out of five daily smokers say they first smoked before age 12.”

Benjamin added that parents can set good examples for youths by not smoking at all.