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We’ve all seen the news. The federal minimum age to purchase tobacco is now 21, a change that was spurred by a nationwide epidemic of youth vaping in America’s suburbs. While that legislation should be celebrated, we must ask ourselves how this ruling will impact the tobacco industry’s largest customer base and most frequent target: The Poor.
The targeting of low-income communities by the tobacco industry has been well-documented. Strategies have included handing out free cigarettes to children in housing projects, targeted marketing through billboards and other ads, and point-of-sale promotions that advertise menthol, the product of choice in the African-American community. Another reason tobacco use rates are higher among low-income populations is because tobacco retailer density is higher in low-income communities, a fact that is not lost in Milwaukee, where tobacco retail density is twice as high in the central city than in the suburbs. In Wisconsin, 29 percent of those who earn less than $25,000 a year smoke, compared to 16 percent of the general population.
As stated bluntly by the Truth Initiative, the largest non-profit working to end tobacco use, “Tobacco is Not an Equal Opportunity Killer.”
The new law raising the age to purchase tobacco and a recently introduced flavor ban will undoubtedly have an impact. Federal estimates project that youth smoking rates will drop drastically. But, the flavor ban excluded menthol, which African-American tobacco users tend to start at a later age, mitigating some of those impacts on a population that has historically been impacted by large health disparities.
We must ask ourselves, when will policy that has the greatest impact on poor communities of color become a priority and when will tobacco be treated as the social justice issue that it is? Right now there are more questions than answers, and our communities will remain targets.