For the last five years, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN) has urged Black faith leaders to educate their congregations about the dangers of tobacco use during No Menthol Sunday, which this year is May 19. At least one church in Indianapolis will observe No Menthol Sunday, which the NAATPN said will include vaping, e-cigarettes and menthol-flavored e-juices this year.
Edward Rogers, tobacco prevention and cessation program coordinator at Indiana Black Expo, will get a 10-minute window to speak to the congregation at Purpose of Life Ministries, 3705 Kessler Blvd. North Drive, after Rev. David Greene’s message May 19.
Rogers said he’s going to “bring the focus on menthol and a call to action to help the congregation understand that [tobacco companies are] out to kill us. It may be a slow death, but they’re out to kill us.”
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a ban on menthol combustible tobacco products (cigars, for example), although the ban doesn’t include menthol-flavored e-juices.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 90% of African American smokers age 12 and older prefer menthol cigarettes. Menthol, which is found in mint plants, gives a cooling sensation and makes it easier to inhale cigarette smoke, which leads to harmful chemicals being absorbed more easily in the body. Some research suggests menthol cigarettes may be more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes.
There is a troubling history of tobacco companies targeting advertising for menthol cigarettes toward African Americans. The National Cancer Institute noted in a 2008 report that in the final decades of the 20th century, before cigarette billboards were banned, there were higher rates of cigarette advertisements on billboards in predominantly African American areas. In a 1988 speech, a senior marketing official at R.J. Reynolds, a tobacco company founded in 1875 that still exists today, said since 70% of Black smokers at the time chose menthol, “special advertising and promotions for Salem cigarettes make a lot of sense in Black media and Black communities.”
An American Tobacco Company advertisement for Bull Durham tobacco in the early 1900s showed racist caricatures of Black children and a woman smoking on a rocking chair. “My!” the caption read. “It shure am Sweet Tastan.”
“We need to stand together and continue to bring awareness about the ill effects of tobacco use and the disparities that have caused a burden to the African American community,” Rogers said.
Staying in line with NAATPN’s “One Step Ahead” theme, Rogers said he’ll reference Micah 6:8, which in part says to “walk humbly with your God.”
Greene said it’s important to bring this message to the church because there’s already a “built-in audience.” African American churches have long been battlegrounds and community spaces, especially in the past for the civil rights movement.
As a more contemporary example of the church’s role in African American culture — and advertisers’ understanding of this — a former Wells Fargo loan banker told The New York Times in 2009 the company targeted Black churches for subprime mortgages “because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”
The influence of African American churches means pastors have many issues they could prioritize and share with large swaths of people at Sunday service or any community event at the church. But when it comes to the dangers of tobacco, menthol, e-cigarettes and other harmful habits, are pastors doing enough for their congregations?
“All of us can do more,” Greene said. “It’s a case of being the church, not just inside the four walls but outside the four walls, and being a resource for a lot of great programs that people don’t know about.”
Greene hasn’t done anything with his church for No Menthol Sunday before but said he wanted to get involved this year because he sees the impact smoking has had on his congregation and understands smoking can be the basis for many health concerns, including lung cancer and stroke. Greene said he knows of some people in his congregation who are trying to quit.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.