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Why Tobacco Still Matters

By: Chris Bostic, Policy Director at ASH
January 12, 2021

Our national house is on fire. And it’s flooded. And it’s falling into a sinkhole. Focusing on a broken window right now would be ludicrous.

The same might be said for working to end the tobacco epidemic during an historic pandemic, deep racial fissures, and in the midst of an attack on our very democracy. For me personally, it’s hard to get up, walk down the stairs to my office (my COVID commute is very short), and jump into my work without first checking the news. And then checking it every few minutes until I go back to bed.

But our work here at ASH has never been more important or relevant. Our hospitals are being overwhelmed partially because smoking increases the chances of severe COVID symptoms. Racial disparities in COVID outcomes are partially explained by a higher smoking prevalence among certain populations due to decades of tobacco industry targeting (and, unfortunately, public policy). One of the worst outcomes of 400 years of racial injustice is generational poverty, particularly among African Americans. The tobacco industry has taken advantage of marginalized communities, again, particularly African American communities, through targeted advertising. The prevalence of tobacco advertisements in Black neighborhoods is up to ten times the prevalence in White neighborhoods. In effect, the tobacco industry siphons money from low-income communities and transfers it to their shareholders, knowing that the relative lack of political power for these populations reduces the risk of a public policy reaction. And of course, without a thought for the devastation their products cause.

At the end of 2019, tobacco was killing over eight million people a year, and that number has only gone up. It is only recently that the number of daily COVID deaths overtook the daily number of tobacco deaths in the U.S. This is not to argue that we should be prioritizing tobacco over COVID – for the public health community, it’s all-hands-on-deck for COVID, and it should be. But ASH’s efforts to save lives would not be served by putting a hold on addressing the world’s number one preventable cause of death. It’s not business as usual, though. ASH has sought to educate the public and policymakers on the comorbidity of tobacco and COVID, and is working with partners to address racial disparities in health outcomes exacerbated by tobacco.

Even without the direct connections between the tobacco epidemic and the challenges facing this country, ASH’s work would be important to me. Like many people, I feel helpless in the face of all these crises. There’s not much I can do personally beyond attending protests and emailing my member of Congress (and occasionally shouting at the TV). But tobacco is a problem I am equipped to address.