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Fighting for Breath in a Hall of Mirrors

By David Boegaard

In the heart of tobacco country, NAATPN has fought for 15 years to combat the subtle marketing and physical addiction that has spread tobacco use like a disease. They have partnered with a variety of nationwide and Durham-based organizations to offer training and education focused on helping two groups who have been particularly targeted by tobacco companies--African Americans and children. They also work to reduce deaths from other forms of cancer within African American communities.

Tobacco has ravaged the the health of Americans for more than a century. Even today, according to the CDC, "cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or 1 of every 5 deaths." While the tide appears to be turning on tobacco use, many continue to smoke despite awareness of the dangers. One method has been shown to work unusually well to stop smoking- showing people the ways in which tobacco advertising has worked to manipulate them.

In African American communities, smoking rates remain intolerably high. No doubt, this is partially the result of the well-documented advertising campaigns aimed at convincing African Americans to smoke menthols. These campaigns have been effective. And continued tobacco use in these communities is partially the result of a lack of information. As a result, the toll of smoking is still being felt strongly within African American communities, suggests LaTroya Hester, Communications Director for NAATPN. "Due to the tobacco industry's tactics, tobacco use still remains the number one preventable cause of death and disease among African Americans."

That's why NAATPN was formed, says Channte Keith, Associate Director of Programs. "NAATPN was founded 15 years ago to address the disparate impact that tobacco use has on the African American community." To accomplish that mission, NAATPN works with a broad array of partners to train and educate African American communities in and around Durham and across the country. The work, explains Keith is to arm these communities in the "fight against the predatory marketing of the tobacco industry and also address the determinants that sustain cancer prevalence in the black community."

NAATPN seeks to spread information about the effects of smoking and the subtle and frequently subconscious means by which tobacco advertisers have pulled the wool over the eyes of African Americans. "Studies show that over 80 percent of African Americans prefer mentholated tobacco products," says Keith. But smoking is a social disease as much as a personal one, and public policy can make as much of an impact as changing minds, both by eliminating second-hand smoke and by creating cultures that discourage tobacco use. "After we have offered cessation tools and educated young people about tobacco marketing tactics, we have to take it a step further," suggests Hester. "Creating healthy communities often requires certain [environmental policy changes] . . . so that everyone can live healthier lifestyles and have a better shot at maintaining healthy habits."

NAATPN has also supports campaigns that educate African Americans about other forms of cancer. "African Americans suffer disproportionately from most chronic diseases including those that are unrelated to tobacco," Hester says.

One example is skin cancer. Hester states that "We certainly do believe that African Americans often feel immune to skin cancer." But that feeling of immunity is falseand can lead to trouble. "Unfortunately, when African Americans are diagnosed with skin disease," notes Hester, "their survival rates are much lower than they are for Caucasian people." So NAATPN focuses on educating people on these issuesas well, says Hester. "We conduct trainings and use our digital platform to share information about getting insured, about getting screened, etc. to our entire network of community leaders, clergy, and public health officials."

It's difficult to see the truth when billions of dollars are trying hard to obscure it. Thankfully there are strong organizations like NAATPN who seek to shine a light toward the truth and remedy the many problems caused by tobacco. One can only pray for the day when their valiant efforts are no longer necessary.

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