February 16, 1995 in Nation/World

White Girls Smoke; Blacks Don’t Study Finds Major Racial Gap Between Young Female Smokers

Tanya Barrientos Philadelphia Inquirer

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 convinced to join those who don’t.

Statistics released late last year by the Centers for Disease Control show that young white women (ages 18-24) 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 completely. Why?

The report didn’t say. And, scientists as well as anti-smoking advocates and doctors can’t seem to figure it out, either. They theorize, however, that it must have something to do with cultural differences among young people.

The report, released in November, showed that in 1987 the percentage of both white and African American young women smokers was roughly comparable - 27.8 percent among whites and 20.4 percent among African Americans.

From 1987 until 1991, the percentages among both groups decreased, slightly among whites, sharply among blacks. By 1991 the numbers were 25.2 percent for white females and 11.9 percent for black females.

But it’s the 1992 statistic that jumped out.

It showed that while the percentage of white female smokers began to creep back up (27.2), the percentage of young black female smokers plummeted yet 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 African Americans (5.9 percent).

Experts said that while they haven’t yet tested their theories, they believe there are differences between the white and African American youth cultures that explain the disparity in smoking 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 as to why young black women don’t smoke as much as their white peers.

“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 both young black and white women interviewed. Both smokers and nonsmokers agreed that weight, and peer pressure, were the main reasons that white women smoke and African American women do not.

“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 published, “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 mirrored what she’s noticed in school and on the street. Both the women are African American, and both said they had never smoked.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” White said. “I mean in high school, think of who was in the girls’ room smoking. It was the white girls.”

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,” she said.

White elaborated: “We have other ways of being accepted or being thought of as cool, like hairstyles and fashion.”

The Tobacco Institute, the 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. It blows that theory out of the water and shows that it’s intellectually bankrupt,” said Walker Merryman, vice president of the institute.

Margaret Barnes, a chief of radiation oncology at Frankford Hospital in Philadelphia and a consultant to the Northeastern division of the American Cancer Society, said advertising is very influential, especially among white women.

“There are at least 10 or 20 billboards with white women smoking for everyone with a black woman smoking,” she said.

Barnes said the low number of young black female smokers was not a surprise to her. She said the statistics have been around for several years but have not been widely reported in popular medical publications or the mainstream press.

“The information is there, but you have to be highly motivated to find it,” she said. “When I look for this literature, it’s buried away in esoteric medical journals, most often the average doctor doesn’t even see it.”

Sutton said she senses some racism behind the lack of attention the statistics have received.

“It goes against all the stereotypes,” she said. “Folks kept looking for what was wrong with the statistics, they figured that the surveys were flawed or the kids were lying, but all the surveys come within a few percentage points of each other, and now (people) have to recognize the numbers are right.”

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.”

Sutton said that, as a marketing professional, she believes a campaign could grow out of the fact that young African Americans don’t think smoking is hip.

“One of our feelings is that since white youths copy so much from the black community, like dress and music and language, that this is something they could also copy,” she said. “That’s what we are hoping to do and we are looking for some funding sources to be able to use these statistics in that way.”

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