Author: LaTroya Hester, Communications Director

Organization: National African American Tobacco Prevention Network

Since 1976, February has presented an opportunity for African Americans to tout our modern and historical accomplishments, saluting greats and encouraging young ones to dig their heels into paths paved with dignity and positive change. Black History Month is a time to proudly stand in the American spotlight. However, for those concerned with social justice, it is a time when health disparities within the African American community become glaringly evident.

It is well known that the black community suffers high death rates due to homicide, suicide, HIV/AIDS and drug use. It is lesser known, that tobacco kills more African Americans annually than all of these combined. In fact, at 45,000 mortalities per year, African Americans carry the highest burden of tobacco-related death among any other U.S. ethnic group.

The National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN), through its national network of tobacco and cancer prevention community organizations, faith-based institutions, government agencies and concerned citizens, addresses this disparity. To truly honoring black Americans, we know we must strive for health equity and protecting the rights of minorities.

Channte Keith, NAATPN’s Associate Director for Programs, is on the frontline of this work. Since addressing individual cessation is only half the battle, Keith focuses her attention on supporting communities in achieving critical policy changes that result in healthier environments for African Americans. On January 22, she celebrated as the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a citywide ordinance that makes all workplaces—including bars and casinos—smoke-free.

After participating in public hearings, and working with national partners to educate New Orleans community leaders about protecting bar and casino workers’ rights, Keith saw the fruit of their labor. In a city where almost 60% of its citizens are African American, this victory takes a major step toward reducing the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke on minorities. “The passing of this historic legislation is important for the protection of all workers,” Keith said. “Especially those vulnerable populations that are disproportionately impacted by secondhand smoke.”

NAATPN works not only to end tobacco-related deaths, but also to address deaths caused by cancer. Today, African American women’s mortality rate is double that of other women. Similarly, African American men are 2.5 times more likely than other men to die from prostate cancer. By working with network partners, like the National Behavioral Health Network for Tobacco and Cancer Control, we can educate our community on the importance of screenings and early detection.

The prevalence of tobacco-related disease and cancer among black people do not exist in a vacuum, and a number of additional social issues exacerbate it. For instance, the African American community is more likely to experience circumstances that contribute mental illness—a major risk factor for smoking and smoking-related disease. Mental health risk factors such as incarceration, exposure to violence and homelessness may seem insurmountable. But, at NAATPN, we are not discouraged.

Community advocacy is a driving force behind NAATPN’s mission to eliminate health disparities in the African American community. We believe that a comprehensive approach involving individuals, families, faith leaders, community members and national organizations will continue to lead us in the right direction.

Our hope is that Black History Month will be a time for all of us to reflect on the accomplishments of black America while also making a commitment to acknowledge the work ahead toward health equity for everyone.

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