This is a mystery, but it's not a whodunit. That's because it's
clear who does it, and who doesn't. White girls do, and black
girls don't. What isn't clear is why, or how those who do can be
persuaded to join those who don't.
Statistics released late last year by the Centers for Disease
Control show that young white women (18 to 24 years old) are the
fastest-growing group of smokers in the nation. But the
percentage of African-American women of the same age who smoke
has plummeted so low that it appears they have almost stopped
The report didn't say. And scientists, anti-smoking advocates
and doctors can't seem to figure it out, either. But they
theorize it must have something to do with cultural differences
among young people.
The report, released in November, showed the percentage of
white and African-American young female smokers was roughly
comparable in 1987-27.8 percent among whites, 20.4 percent among
From 1987 through 1990, the percentages among both groups
decreased, slightly among whites, sharply among blacks. In 1991,
the numbers were 25.2 percent for white women and 11.9 percent
for their black counterparts.
The 1992 statistic stands out: The percentage of white female
smokers crept back up (27.2), but the percentage of young black
female smokers fell sharply again, to 5.9 percent.
Researchers say it's no fluke because more-recent statistics
back up the 1992 findings. A 1993 study of Pennsylvania smokers
conducted by the state Department of Health showed similar trends
Boys and girls in grades 7, 9 and 12 surveyed by the state
that year were asked whether they had smoked 100 cigarettes in
their lifetime and smoked within the last 30 days.
More than twice the number of white students (17.7 percent)
said they consider themselves regular smokers than did blacks
Experts said that, while they haven't tested their theories,
they believe differences between the white and African-American
youth cultures may explain the disparity in statistics.
Charyn Sutton, a public-health marketing expert, said she had
studied the trend for several years and had come up with a
general theory. "One of the most important reasons is the
issue of body weight," said Sutton, president of the Onyx
Group marketing company and a volunteer with the American Heart
The black culture permits women to be heavier and still be
attractive. There is not, I really believe, the whole need to be
thin-in fact being skinny, for them, is a negative. It's that
need to be thin that is feeding a lot of tobacco use among white
That theory seemed to jell with the sentiments of young black
and white women interviewed. Smokers and non-smokers agreed that
weight and peer pressure are the main reasons white women smoke
and African-American women don't.
"We're, like, exactly the same age, and people see us
differently," said Angie Nowak, 18, a student at Temple
University in Philadelphia. She is white, and her roommate is
African-American. They both smoke.
"My black girlfriends always put me down for
smoking," said Nowak's roommate, Jaimie, who did not want
her last name used, "but my white girlfriends always say,
'Give me one.' "
Rhonda Hall, 19, said the low smoking statistics among
African-American women surprised her. But her girlfriend, Thaiia
White, said the numbers only mirror what she has noticed in
school and on the street. Both are African-American; both said
they've never smoked.
Hall said black girls don't include smoking in the list of
behaviors required to be trendy or popular: "With black
girls, it's more about how you carry yourself, having a strong
presence, and you don't have to smoke to have that."
White added: "We have other ways of being accepted or
being thought of as cool, like hairstyles and fashion."
The Tobacco Institute, a Washington lobbying agency for the
tobacco industry, interpreted the CDC statistics as helping to
disprove the notion that tobacco companies are targeting
minorities. "It's been true for several years, so it shows
that, despite all of the human outcry against marketing of
tobacco products in the inner cities, there's no need for
concern," said Walker Merryman, vice president of the
institute. "It blows that theory out of the water and shows
that it's intellectually bankrupt."
Margaret Barnes, a chief of radiation oncology at Frankford
Hospital in Philadelphia, said advertising is very influential,
especially among white women.
Sutton suggests that public health workers need to find out
why black teens smoke less and try to "figure out if there
are some things that can be transferable to the population that
is really at risk, which is white youth."