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Tanya Barrientos
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, February 21, 1995
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 smoking.


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 African-Americans.

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 among students.

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 (5.9 percent).

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 Association.

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 girls." 

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."

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Professor Vernellia R. Randall
Institute on Race, Health Care and the Law
The University of Dayton School of Law
300 College Park 
Dayton, OH 45469-2772
Email: randall@udayton.edu


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