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By Amanda Hucksoll
Reality Check Program Manager of Erie & Niagara
Last week, I gathered with students across Buffalo and Niagara Falls for an event highlighting dangers of menthol-flavored tobacco products. This was the first activity of this school year for our Tobacco-Free Erie and Niagara’s youth program, Reality Check. I was moved to write about my experience with these events because, time and time again when I’m working with young people, I come away impressed by the interest and enthusiasm they have for the movement against Big Tobacco. Youth recognize how menthol has infiltrated their communities, and plan to share their knowledge with peers and their communities.
Working with young people has always been a passion of mine and, when I get to see them in action, there is nothing better than helping empower and amplify their voices.
While tie-dying T-shirts in green colors with the message “It’s Not Just Menthol,” we discussed the devastating impact of menthol tobacco products on the African American community and the prevalence of menthol tobacco use among youth smokers. Attendees took pride in learning the truths about menthol. Many know someone who smokes menthol cigarettes and were disheartened to learn that menthol is added to make smoking easier to inhale.
One youth stated, “I had no idea that menthol is used to recruit new smokers who look like me.”
African Americans and young people are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes than other groups. About half (54%) of youth who smoke use menthol cigarettes. Research shows menthol makes it easier to start, and harder to quit. Menthol use among these communities is a direct result of the tobacco industry's marketing practices. So, it’s no coincidence that over 7 out of 10 African American youth ages 12-17 years who smoke use menthol cigarettes.
As a lifelong WNY resident and public health professional, I can attest to the fact that there is more menthol tobacco advertising in communities of color, including mine in Lackawanna. Plus, research shows there is two to three times more tobacco marketing near schools. It comes as no surprise that the average age of a new smoker is just 13 years old.
While New York state’s ban on flavored e-cigarettes is a major step toward reducing youth smoking, menthol cigarettes remain an obstacle. Youth were inspired to continue the momentum on Oct. 13, the fifth annual “Seen Enough Tobacco Day.” They will wear their tie-dyed shirts carrying their message to school, taking photos, and posting on social media. Youth have seen enough tobacco and want menthol out of their communities!