Smoking, or No? At-Risk Youth Dilemma: Black Teens Smoke Far Less Than Whites

Heather Szerlag
January 1, 1996

Numbers show African American teens are having phenomenal success beating the smoking habit. A recent survey found that only 4.4 percent of black high school seniors smoked in 1993, compared with 22.9 percent of white high school seniors. The number of black teens smoking is dramatically lower than in 1976, when 26.8 percent of black seniors chose to light up, while the number of white teens smoking has fallen only 6 percent from 28.8 percent.

Why the drop in black teen smoking?

There's not one magic answer says Dr. Sherry Mills of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. Mills ran a series of focus groups in six cities examining black and white teen attitudes towards tobacco.

Preliminary findings show that tobacco doesn't mean the same things to black teens as it does to whites, and that a number of cultural, family and community factors are involved in black teens decisions not to smoke.

White teens see smoking as something exciting and rebellious, and associate smoking with going to parties and drinking. For black teens, smoking does not have the same salience, in part, Mills thinks because they already have enough danger in their lives.

Says Mills, "When just going to and from home for many black kids there is a question of violence, with the dangers of just surviving, they're not going to take that added risk."

The way black parents convey the message not to smoke may also impact on black teen smoking. "Black kids will tell you that parental discipline is different, and that the parents of a lot of them (white teens) are allowing them to buy cigarettes," says Mills. African American teens also tend to be more religious and so are more likely to follow church sanctions against smoking, she added.

Black adolescents seem to be less concerned about body weight, while whites, especially females, use cigarettes as a means of becoming thin, or maintaining a low weight. Weight is not as much of a concern in the African American community, says Dr. Bob Robinson at the Center for Disease Control Office of Smoking and Health. "Black teens are not going to the beach as much in the summer, and are not as likely to be showing off their bodies," he added.

And the tobacco industry has been less than successful in developing advertising campaigns targeted towards black adolescents. "African American teens don't smoke Camels, they smoke menthols, as do African American adults, they smoke Cool, Salems and Newport," said Robinson. Camel has become the leading brand among white adolescents since the advent of the Joe Camel campaign.

Part of the failure of ads directed towards African Americans rests upon the less than subtle marketing techniques employed by tobacco advertisers. The introduction of RJ Reynolds' Uptown cigarettes in the 80's, an upscale black and gold cigarette with a high nicotine content that was marketed almost exclusively to blacks, led to the nation wide protests and the formation of the Philadelphia-based Uptown Coalition. RJ Reynolds was forced to take the Up-town off the market. This incident sparked the first networking among African American anti-tobacco activists, jumpstarting their advocacy work. African American anti-tobacco advocates recently scored another big victory over the tobacco companies by forcing the 'X' cigarette off the market. The 'X' brand was also blatantly targeted to the black community, with a red, green, and black cigarette package — the colors of the black liberation movement, and an X resembling the one used in the Spike Lee film biography of Malcolm X.

The strength and glamour of the black anti-tobacco groups have also contributed to low numbers of black teens who smoke.

"African American advocates have been very outspoken and rebellious and sometimes engaged in civil disobedience," says anti-tobacco advocate Sharyn Sutton. "So not smoking has taken on this rebellious image." Sutton, along with her partner, Uptown coalition organizer Reverend Jesse Brown run the Onyx Group, a communications firm that conducts focus groups' in the African American community.

Among black anti-tobacco advocates, an image of taking on the system and not necessarily playing by the rules has been fostered by activists like John Wiley Price, the Texas commissioner whose virulent anti-tobacco protests led to his arrest. Black youth also have a real life anti-tobacco caped crusader, Mandrake, a Chicago based 'superhero' who white washes tobacco billboards in black neighborhoods.

With role models like this, "African Americans can refuse to smoke and not feel like they're goody two shoes or accommodating what their parents want them to do," says Sutton.

The early findings of the National Cancer Institute's focus groups has sparked interest in more studies of this kind. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has also expressed interest in funding additional research. But while more studies need to be done, the cultural 'somethings' that make black teens say no to cigarettes will not be easy to replicate in other populations, warns both Robinson and Mills. These issues just don't effect white children in the same way," cautions Mills.


National Cancer Institute

Division of Cancer Prevention and Control

Contact: Dr. Sherry Mills

31 Center Drive MSC 2580

Bethesda, MD 20892-2580

(301) 496-6641

Szerlag, Heather. "Smoking, or No? At-Risk Youth Delimma: Black Teens Smoke Far Less Than Whites." Youth Today, January/February 1996, p. 21.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.





In my point of view, smoking is one of the most considerable issues not only for teenagers and for adults also. Smoking gives rise to other issues such as drinking, and other major problems. It is only beneficial if teens are educated on various issues related to smoking, parents and schools need to be more cautious to make children understand the consequences.