The early service at Beulah Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur is full of energy and life. This past Sunday, Pastor Jerry Black has a special message for his congregation.
“Give up that thing called a cigarette. Amen, amen. Can you do it? Yes, you can. We can do all things through Christ … who what? Strengthens you and me, amen. So it can be done, if you want it,” he said.
Beulah and churches across the country are participating in “No Menthol Sunday,” a campaign sponsored by the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN).
For years, tobacco companies have pushed brands like Newport, Salem and Kool to African American communities.
Now NAATPN sees targeting menthol as a way to reduce tobacco and e-cigarette use in those communities, and it’s taking that fight to church.
“Because the pastor can rally his congregants, but in addition to that, you have a group setting where folks can quit and abstain from tobacco together,” says Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of NAATPN.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 9 in 10 African American smokers over the age of 12 prefer products flavored with menthol.
But while they tend to smoke less than other groups, the agency says they’re more likely to die from smoking-related diseases.
“Because of our access to health care,” says Jefferson. “The quality of health care that we get after we’re diagnosed with some type of tobacco-related illness.”
But the effort doesn’t end in the pulpit. Outside the fellowship hall, Portia Griffin works a table laden with tobacco-cessation pamphlets.
She hands out paper fans bearing the number of a quit-smoking hotline and gets congregants to sign pledges to encourage their family members to give up tobacco.
Griffin started smoking decades ago as a teenager after a doctor encouraged it to treat her sinus problems.
“The doctor recommended that I start smoking a menthol cigarette,” she said. “It just shows you how our community has been impacted with misinformation.”
Griffin eventually quit. Now, she wants to help others do the same, combating years of targeted marketing of menthol-flavored tobacco products to her community.
But there’s a lot of work to be done.
The CDC says African Americans try to give up tobacco more often than other smokers but are less successful in doing so.