Tobacco control for fairness

Kendall Stagg is the policy manager for the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition.

It is no secret that smoking cigarettes and being exposed to secondhand smoke is deadly. We know that more people die from tobacco-related diseases than murder, suicide, AIDS, drugs, alcohol and car accidents combined. We know that tobacco causes one-third of all cancers and 90 percent of all lung cancers. What most people do not know is that tobacco control is a serious social justice issue.

Smoking is not, as Hollywood would like us to believe, a lifestyle choice of the rich and famous. In the real world, smoking is an affliction of the young, the poor, the depressed, the stressed-out, the uninsured, the less educated, the blue-collar worker, the minority group member, the ill-at-ease college freshmen and the young gay man trying to find social acceptance in the urban bar scene with a cigarette in hand. The tobacco industry has succeeded in addicting those who have the least information about the health risks of smoking, the fewest resources, the fewest social supports and the least access to services to help them quit.

Nearly all adults who smoke started as children, with nearly 90 percent picking up the habit before graduating from high school. Adults who smoke are 40 percent more likely live below the poverty line. Only 3 percent of lawyers smoke. Yet, 60 percent of roofers and an equally alarmingly high percentage of other blue-collar workers smoke on a daily basis. The link between lower education, income and smoking cannot be overemphasized. Tobacco is not an equal-opportunity killer.

The poor, women and minorities are typically diagnosed later for tobacco-related diseases and receive fewer interventions than well-off white men. These individuals are more likely to start smoking, more likely to continue—and more likely to die.

Smoking cigarettes kills hundreds of women each day—leaving 22,000 children motherless in the United States each year. Many low-income families addicted to nicotine must choose between buying cigarettes and purchasing family necessities. Their children, in turn, are more likely to grow up to be smokers. Children of the poor are more likely to become lifelong smokers than children who come from more affluent families.

Secondhand smoke is also a social justice issue. The smoke that comes off the tip of a cigarette is 20 times more deadly than what a smoker inhales, and the poor are disproportionately exposed to these deadly carcinogens. For example, over half of all white-collar workers are covered by smoke-free policies in their work places, compared with approximately a third of all service workers and a quarter of blue-collar workers. Being a waitress or a blue-collar worker is not a crime and should not carry the death penalty.

The state legislature can help bring social justice to poor communities by enacting meaningful tobacco control legislation. Nevada has the weakest tobacco control laws in the nation. In fact, Nevada’s tobacco-friendly laws act as the model that the tobacco lobby encourages other states to mimic. It is time for our lawmakers to be models for our children—not for Big Tobacco. Perhaps that might bring us the justice we seek, at long last.