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Tobacco’s harm is an old story, but its relevance hasn’t faded in vulnerable communities

Tobacco’s harm is an old story, but its relevance hasn’t faded in vulnerable communities

Picture of Jennifer Bihm
[Photo by Matthias Ripp via Flickr.]

The statistics have almost become commonplaces in this day and age. They’re often something like, “Tobacco contributes to one in four cancer deaths in the U.S.” or, “Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death … ” And so on and so on. So, why would a series of news articles on smoking even be relevant?

I had to ask myself this several times before I decided to take it on as a project for the Center for Health Journalism’s 2016 California Fellowship. When the communications team from UCLA SAFE (Smoke Free Air for Everyone) dropped a press kit in my box, I was less than impressed — until I actually read the information. That's because they were saying were things that I knew would directly affect readers of my publication, the Los Angeles Sentinel.

The UCLA team was talking about a pending ban on smoking in public housing. They were talking about smoking and how it relates to the debilitating effects of poverty. Specifically, they were talking about public housing, about poor people, about people who had limited choices in where they were able to live and about limited choices in their health care.

“This is good,” I thought. At first, it was just going to be one story because I had two other ideas I thought were great. But a few wise mentors from CHJ steered me in a different direction. They wanted me instead to focus on writing three stories on smoking in impoverished communities. I’m glad they did. It forced me to take my research skills to another level.

I learned to ask myself before I write a story, “Who will care and why should they?”

It’s easy to assume that another article on smoking would be a non-story, since the statistics that show how harmful it is have been out for a long time. But in researching my first story, I found that while smoking rates among African Americans are lower than national levels, this ethnic group continues to suffer disproportionately from chronic and preventable diseases caused by smoking. Each year, approximately 45,000 African Americans die from a smoking-caused illness. An estimated 1.6 million African Americans who are now under the age of 18 will become regular smokers; and about 500,000 of these will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease. This was one of several reasons L.A. Sentinel readers should care about this issue, and these reasons set the tone for my stories.

If you search thoroughly enough, you will find others who care about your story also, and they become great resources. After my first story, I had people reach out to me with information that I was able to use for subsequent stories. Through them, I learned about the predatory advertising tactics used to get people hooked on tobacco, especially African Americans and kids. I also learned that there were legislators out there working on counteracting the tactics by making sure that adequate, affordable help was available to those who needed it.

Since the articles were published, I’ve had a few more organizations and groups reach out to me, urging me to write more about what tobacco is doing to impoverished and particularly the black community. In fact, I ended up writing an additional story about black community leaders coming together to support California’s Proposition 56, a tax increase of $2 a pack that passed by a large margin on California’s Nov. 8 ballot.

[Photo by Matthias Ripp via Flickr.]


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